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.
The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) is the independent agency in the UK charged, amongst other things, with assessing the cost-effectiveness of new drugs. In a report published on 19 November 2009, NICE found that the drug sorafenib, branded as Nexavar by its manufacturer, the German pharmaceutical company, Bayer AG, was not cost-effective. The drug can extend the life of terminally ill patients with liver cancer. However, it is very expensive, costing about £3000 per month per patient.
The NICE press release (see link below) quotes Andrew Dillon, the Chief Executive of NICE, as saying: “We were disappointed not to have been able to recommend the use of sorafenib, but after carefully considering all the evidence, including the proposed ‘patient access scheme’ in which the manufacturer offered to provide every fourth pack free, sorafenib does not provide enough benefit to patients to justify its high cost.”
Not surprisingly people suffering from liver cancer, and also various patient groups, were highly critical of the decision. But with a limited budget for the National Health Service and the increasing pressure to save costs in order to reduce the public-sector debt, many difficult choices like this have to be made.
What NICE attempts to do is a cost–benefit analysis of new drugs. Whilst costs can be difficult to measure, especially over the longer term, the benefits are much more problematic as they have to take into account the effects on the quality of people’s lives – something that will vary enormously from one patient to another. And then there are the effects on family and friends and on the economy. The measure used in the NHS and elswhere is the QALY – ‘quality-adjusted life year’. In paragraph 4.8 of the full NICE report (see link below), it was noted that
“the base-case ICER [incremental cost-effectiveness ratio] presented by the manufacturer was originally £64,800 per QALY gained and when the patient access scheme was included [where every fourth pack is supplied free to the NHS by Bayer] this went down to £51,900 per QALY gained. Both ICERs were substantially higher than those normally considered to be an acceptable use of NHS resources.”
2009/069 NICE appraisal of sorafenib for advanced hepatocellular carcinoma NICE press release (19/11/09)
Final appraisal determination Sorafenib for the treatment of advanced hepatocellular carcinoma (Full document) NICE (19/11/09)
NHS denies drug to cancer patients (video) ITN (on YouTube) (18/11/09)
Liver cancer drug ‘too expensive’ (including videos) BBC News (19/11/09)
UK’s NICE says Bayer liver cancer drug too costly Reuters (18/11/09)
Nice’s decision not to approve the liver cancer drug Nexavar is painful but necessary and Drug for terminal liver cancer patients ‘too expensive’Telegraph, Rebecca Smith (19/11/09)
NHS says it’s too expensive to keep you alive Telegraph, Janet Daley (19/11/09)
Bayer’s patent case hearing in HC today Tines of India (18/11/09)
- What makes the choice of whether to provide a particular drug to a pateint an ‘economic’ one?
- Imagine you were a person suffering from liver cancer. What evidence would you wish to bring to the government to persuade it to ignore NICE’s recommendation?
- Is the use of QALYs the best means of assessing the benefits of a drug? Explain.
- What are the arguments for and againist the NHS providing expensive drugs free to people on low incomes but charging a price well above the current prescription fee to those who could afford to pay? If such as scheme were introduced, on what basis should such a price be determined and should it be on a sliding scale according to people’s income and/or wealth?
According to Sir Liam Donaldson, England’s Chief Medical Officer, swine flu is on its way back. However, vaccinations are now available to the most vulnerable people, including front-line medical staff, people with chronic health problems and pregnant women. But, what about every-day workers? Surely, these are people that need protecting too, as they are the ones who contribute to the economy. How do you prioritise?
A key question is how much swine flu has actually cost the UK economy. Here, we’re not just concerned with the cost of the vaccines, but also the opportunity cost of that money, the lost output from illness, the human suffering – both of the victims and of their relatives and friends – and, of course, the impact on business and the economy. Some of the countries worst hit by the outbreak of swine flu have faced particular problems, such as protectionist trade policies and a significant fall in business through tourism.
So, will the vaccine prove cost effective for the government, or is it more about the moral obligation to provide it? These articles look at some of the recent developments in the worst pandemic in years.
Mexico economy squeezed by swine flu BBC News (30/4/09)
Swine flu vaccine on its way to GPs Grimsby Telegraph (21/10/09)
Exclusive – WTO protectionism report to feature swine flu bans Reuters (12/6/09)
Flu bill ‘may hit fire plans’ Teletext (27/10/09)
Swine flu vaccination under way BBC News (21/10/09)
Swine flu costs have put dent in profits, Amerigroup says Pilot Online, Tom Shean (27/10/09)
Swine flu gives Pharmaceutical Companies a New Edge Top News, Tangaroa Snell (26/10/09)
Economic cost of swine flu could be around $3 trillion to $4.4 trillion Today’s Zaman (Turkey) (2/11/09)
Swine flu mass vaccination programme launched Guardian (21/10/09)
Full list of swine flu cases, country by country Guardian (updated daily)
Doctors plan mass swine flu jabs for under-18s Times Online (1/11/09)
- What is the opportunity cost of swine flu? How could you illustrate this on a diagram?
- Vaccines are going to those at risk first. Why is this particularly relevant in terms of the economic problem?
- What is protectionism and what are the main forms? Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of protectionist policies in the context of swine flu.
- If the government had to decide whether or not a swine flu vaccine was worth producing, how could they have done this? Outline the process by which costs and benefits can be weighed up. Are there any drawbacks to this method?
- How have businesses been affected by swine flu? Think about those who have benefited as well as those that have lost.
Walk down any street in the country, and you’re bound to see a Sky dish. With subscribers still increasing, a viewing target of 10 million by 2010 and revenue increasing to £1.4 billion, it seems that Sky TV is hardly suffering from the current ‘challenging conditions’ besetting so many firms.
Enter Ofcom, the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK’s communication industries that has been investigating the UK Pay TV industry since 2007. A consultation was published on the 26th June 2009 in which Ofcom indicated that BSkyB should be forced to make its premium sports and film channels available to rival broadcasters in a bid to ‘promote choice and innovation’. The articles below look at this conflict.
Sky may have to share TV channels BBC News (26/6/09)
Ofcom may set Sky’s wholesale prices Digital Spy, Andrew Laughlin (25/6/09)
Ofcom proposes measures to improve competition in pay TV Ofcom (26/6/09)
Pay TV Phase three document: Proposed remedies Ofcom Consultation (26/6/09)
BSkyB in war of words with Virgin Media and BT Guardian, Leigh Holmwood (24/6/09)
BSkyB keeps Premier League rights BBC Sport, Football (3/2/09)
Sky will fight Ofcom over Premium TV Tech Radar, Patrick Goss (26/6/09)
Pay TV market investigation: Consultation document Ofcom (18/12/07)
Sky asked to open up Premium sports and movies Times Online, Peter Stiff (26/6/09)
All believers in a competitive market must back Ofcom to take on Sky Telegraph, Neil Berkett (26/6/09)
Ofcom: Sky not playing fair with premium content Tech Radar, Patrick Goss (26/06/09)
- How well does BSkyB fit into a monopoly position for its premium content?
- What are the regulatory options open to Ofcom?
- How does Ofcom aim to introduce more competition and fairer prices into the Pay TV market?
- Why is it argued that competition is in the public’s best interest? Do you agree with this, or should BSkyB be allowed to carry on as it is?
- What has enabled Sky to become such a dominant force?
- How do you think the collapse of Setanta will affect this debate?
- Sky TV has seen its profits continuing to grow. Given that we’re in a recession, what does this tell us about Sky and the type of good or service that it supplies?
As economists we often argue that choice is a good thing as it will help to create more efficient and dynamic markets. Public-sector reform has tended to focus on the introduction of choice as a way of making public services more responsive to consumer needs. But is choice always a good thing? The article linked to below from the Guardian considers the trade-off between choice and central planning.
We’re getting choice, whether we want it or not Guardian (16/3/2008)
||Explain how increased choice helps to make the public sector more responsive to consumer needs.
||Discuss whether centrally planned provision of public services, such as healthcare, is likely to lead to more or less efficient services.
||Assess the extent to which increased choice in the provision of health services is likely to make health care more responsive to people’s healthcare needs.