When people think about healthcare in the UK they tend to associate it with the NHS. However, there is a £5 billion private healthcare market. Concerns have been expressed about the lack of effective competition in this sector and it has been investigated by the competition authorities over a 5-year period.
Approximately 4 million people in the UK have a private medical insurance policy. The majority of these are paid for by employers, although some people pay directly. Four companies dominate the health insurance market (AXA PPP, Bupa, Pru Health and Aviva) with a combined market share of over 90%.
Health insurance companies purchase healthcare services for their policy holders from private hospitals. The majority of private hospitals in the UK are owned by the following businesses – BMI, HCA, Nuffield, Ramsey and Spire. Some concerns have been expressed about the lack of competition between private hospitals in some areas of the country.
After its initial analysis into the sector, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) referred the case to the Competition Commission (CC) in April 2012 to carry out a full market investigation. This process was then taken over by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) when it replaced the OFT and CC. The final report was published on April 2nd 2014.
One specific region that was identified in this report as having a lack of effective competition was central London for patients with health insurance. In particular it was concluded that:
||The market in central London was heavily concentrated and HCA had a dominant market position – its aggregated share of admissions across 16 specialities (e.g. Oncology, Cardiology, Neurology, Dermatology etc.) was 45% to 55%.
||There were significant barriers to entry including substantial sunk costs. A particular issue for a new entrant or existing business was the problem of securing suitable sites in central London to build new hospitals and in obtaining planning permission. It was pointed out in the report that the market structure in central London had changed very little in the previous 10 years despite a rapidly growing demand for private healthcare.
|| HCA was charging insured patients higher prices for similar treatments than its leading rival – The London Clinic. HCA was also found to be making returns that were in excess of the cost of capital.
One of the key recommendations of the report was that HCA should be forced to sell–off one or two of the hospitals that it owned in central London to increase the level of competition.
Unsurprisingly HCA was very unhappy with the decision and applied to the Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT) for a review of the case. During this review, economists working for HCA found errors with the analysis carried out by the CMA into the pricing of health services for insured customers.
In January 2015 the CAT concluded that the findings and recommendations of the report on insured patients in central London should be overturned and the CMA should reconsider the case. In November 2015 the CMA announced that having reviewed the case it had come to a similar set of conclusions: i.e. there was a lack of effective competition and HCA should be forced to sell off two of its hospitals in London.
HCA still claimed that the pricing analysis was incorrect because it did not fully take into account that HCA treated patients with more complex conditions than TLC and that was why their prices were higher.
On March 22nd 2016 the CMA announced that it had reversed its ruling and HCA would no longer be expected to sell off any of its hospitals. The reason given for this change in recommendation was the appearance of new entrants into the market. For example, Cleveland Clinic a US-based private healthcare provider has purchased a long-term lease on a property in Belgravia, central London. It plans to convert the office space into a private hospital with 2015 beds.
A spokesperson for Bupa commented that:
“The CMA has confirmed again that there isn’t enough competition in central London, with HCA dominating the private hospital market and charging higher prices. We ask the CMA to act now to address this gap.”
It will be interesting to see the impact these new entrants have on the market in the future.
London develops as a global healthcare hub Financial Times Gill Plimmer (31/01/16)
Competition watchdog reverses ruling on private hospitals Financial Times Gill Plimmer, (22/03/16)
CMA’s private healthcare provisional decision on remedies CMA 22/03/16
Competition problems provisionally found in private healthcare CMA 10/11/15
CMA welcomes Court of Appeal verdict in private healthcare case CMA 21/05/15
- Define sunk costs using some real-world examples.
- Why might the existence of sunk costs create a barrier to entry?
- Draw a diagram to illustrate why a profit-maximising business with significant market power might charge higher prices than one in a very competitive environment.
- What is the cost of capital? Explain why returns that are greater than the cost of capital might be evidence that a firm is making excessive profits.
- Draw a diagram to illustrate the impact of new entrants in a market.
In June 2014, the Gas and Electricity Markets Authority (which governs the energy regulator, Ofgem) referred Great Britain’s retail and wholesale gas and electricity markets to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). The market is dominated by the ‘big six‘ energy companies (British Gas, EDF, E.ON, npower, Scottish Power and SSE) and Ofgem suspected that this oligopoly was distorting competition and leading to higher prices.
The CMA presented its report on 10 March 2016. It confirmed its preliminary findings of July and December 2015 “that there are features of the markets for the supply of energy in Great Britain that result in an adverse effect on competition”. It concludes that “the average customer could save over £300 by switching to a cheaper deal” and that “customers could have been paying about £1.7 billion a year more than they would in a competitive market”.
It made various recommendations to address the problem. These include “requiring the largest suppliers to provide fuller information on their financial performance” and strengthening the role of Ofgem.
Also the CMA wants to encourage more people to switch to cheaper suppliers. At present, some 70% of the customers of the big six are on default standard variable tariffs, which are more expensive than other tariffs available. To address this problem, the CMA proposes the setting up of “an Ofgem-controlled database which will allow rival suppliers to contact domestic and microbusiness customers who have been stuck on their supplier’s default tariff for 3 years or more with better deals.”
Another area of concern for the CMA is the 4 million people (16% of customers) forced to have pre-payment meters. These tend to be customers with poor credit records, who also tend to be on low incomes. Such customers are paying more for their gas and electricity and yet have little opportunity to switch to cheaper alternatives. For these customers the CMA proposed imposing transitional price controls from no later than April 2017 until 2020. These would cut typical bills by some £80 to £90 per year. In the meantime, the CMA would seek to remove “restrictions on the ability of new suppliers to compete for prepayment customers and reduce barriers such as debt issues that make it difficult for such customers to switch”.
Despite trying to address the problem of lack of competition, consumer inertia and barriers to entry, the CMA has been criticised for not going further. It has also been criticised for the method it has chosen to help consumers switch to cheaper alternative suppliers and tariffs. The articles below look at these criticisms.
Competition and Markets Authority Energy Report BBC You and Yours (10/3/16)
Millions could see cut in energy bills BBC News (10/3/16)
Shake-up of energy market could save customers millions, watchdog says The Telegraph, Jillian Ambrose (10/3/16)
UK watchdog divided over energy market reforms Financial Times, Kiran Stacey (10/3/16)
How the CMA energy inquiry affects you Which? (10/3/16)
UK watchdog accused of bowing to pressure from ‘big six’ energy suppliers The Guardian, Terry Macalister (10/3/16)
CMA sets out energy market changes CMA press release (10/3/16)
Energy Market Investigation: Summary of provisional remedies Competition and Markets Authority (10/3/16)
- Find out the market share of the ‘big six’ and whether this has changed over the past few years.
- What, if any, are the barriers to entry in the gas and electricity retail markets?
- Why are the big six able to charge customers some £300 per household more than would be the case if they were on the cheapest deal?
- What criticisms have been made of the CMA’s proposals?
- Discuss alternative proposals to those of the CMA for dealing with the problem of excessive prices of gas and electricity.
- Should Ofgem or another independent not-for-profit body be allowed to run its own price comparison and switching service? Would this be better than the CMA’s proposal for allowing competitors access to people’s energy usage after 3 years of being with the same company on its standard tariff and allowing them to contact these people?
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.
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)
- Is price discrimination always against the consumer’s interests?
- What form of price discrimination is being practised in the case of Nurofen?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- What is the best way of improving consumer knowledge about particular types of over-the-counter drugs and their effects on the body?
- 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.’
The proposed $100 billion takeover of SABMiller by AB InBev is the third largest in history. It provides a good example of how the UK Panel on Takeovers and Mergers operates.
Economics textbooks often discuss competition authorities such as the Competition and Markets Authority but they rarely mention the UK Panel on Takeovers and Mergers (The Panel).The Panel is an independent body that was established in 1968. It has up to 35 members who all have professional expertise on the subject of takeovers i.e. they are usually employees of or have been seconded from (i) law and accountancy firms (ii) corporate brokers (iii) investment banks.
The Panel’s main responsibility is to implement the City Code on Takeovers and Mergers. This code sets out a number of ground-rules that companies must follow if they are involved in a merger or takeover. These rules became statutory in 2006 following the Companies Act of that year. The following objectives underpin the code:
||To ensure that the shareholders of the target company in a proposed takeover are treated fairly and are given the opportunity to make an informed decision about the relative merits of the takeover.
||To ensure that the whole takeover/merger process operates in a structured and systematic manner.
The Panel does not make any judgements on the commercial case for the takeover or merger. This is left to the management and shareholders of the companies involved. It also does not get involved with competition issues such as whether the newly established firm would have significant market power. These decisions in the UK are left to the Competition and Markets Authority. If the merger has a European element/dimension to it then it is investigated by the European Commission.
The rules that made up the code remained largely unchanged from 1968 until some important changes were made in September 2011. This followed the controversial takeover of Cadbury by the US food company Kraft. Kraft had first announced its intention to make an offer to acquire Cadbury in September 2009 but a deal was not agreed by the management of Cadbury until January 2010. Concerns were expressed at the time that this long and protracted takeover had made it very difficult for Cadbury to run its business effectively because of the uncertainty it created. It was also argued that the rules gave the acquiring company a significant tactical advantage in the takeover process and made it too easy for them to succeed.
One important change is that a targeted company must publicly announce the name of any companies that have made an approach about a possible deal. This announcement then activates a 28 day bid deadline period known as ‘pusu’ which stands for ‘put up’ (the money: i.e. make a formal bid) or ‘shut up’ (and walk away). This means that if the potential acquirer has not made a formal bid by the end of this 28-day period it is prohibited from making a bid for another 6 months. A request can be made to the Takeover Panel for an extension to this initial 28-day period, but this can only be done with the agreement of the target company.
Therefore SABMiller was obliged to announce on 15th September 2015 that
“Anheuser-Busch InBev SA/NV (AB InBev) has informed SABMiller that it intends to make a proposal to acquire SABMiller. No proposal has yet been received and the Board of SABMiller has no further details about the terms of any such proposal.”
The timing of this announcement made 14th October the official deadline by which AB InBev had to make a formal offer. After rejecting five bids, an offer of £44 a share by AB InBev was agreed in principle by the SABMiller management team on 13th October. Given the size and complexity of the deal (i.e. AB InBev is financing the deal by borrowing over $70 billion from 21 different banks), an initial two-week extension until 28th October was granted by the Takeover Panel. This could only have been granted with the agreement of SABMiller. Another one-week extension was agreed and then, on 4th November, SABMiller management made the following announcement.
“In order to allow SABMiller and AB InBev to finalise their discussions and satisfy the pre-conditions to the announcement of a formal transaction, the board of SABMiller has requested that the Panel on Takeovers and Mergers further extends the relevant deadline until 5pm November 11, 2015.”
One major issue has been the potential impact of the takeover on the level of competition in the US market. AB InBev and SABMiller already have market shares of 46% and 27% respectively. SABMiller’s strong presence in this market is a result of its joint venture, MillerCoors, with Molson Coors. One reason behind the last request for an extension is to grant enough time for a deal to be finalised for the sale of SABMiller’s 58% stake in MillerCoors to Molson Coors. Without this sale the US competition authorities would not approve the takeover.
Most observers believe that it will take a year for the deal to be completed and it will be interesting to chart its progress over the next 12 months.
Postscript: AB InBev announced on 11th November that it had made a formal offer of £71 billion to acquire SABMiller and SABMiller’s share in MillerCoors had been sold to Molson Coors for $12 billion.
SABMiller to seek another Takeover Panel extension for AB InBev takeover The Telegraph, Ben Martin (04/11/15)
AB InBev and SABMiller allay concerns about 68bn MegaBrew deal The Telegraph, Ben Martin (28/10/15)
AB InBev, SABMiller extend takeover deadline to Nov.4 Reuters, Philip Blenkinsop (28/10/15)
SABMiller agrees AB Inbev takeover deal of £68bn The Guardian, Sean Farrell (13/10/15)
SABMiller is AB Inbev’s toughest takeover yet. It may not be its last The Economist (14/10/15)
Brewery Battle: AB Inbev and the Craft Beer Challenge BBC News, Peter Shadbolt (13/10/15)
Beer Giants AB Inbev and SABMiller Agree Takeover Terms BBC News (13/10/15)
- The proposed takeover of SABMiller by AB InBev would be the third largest in history. What are the two biggest deals?
- The European Commission investigates ‘large’ mergers that have an ‘EU dimension’. On what basis does the European Commission judge if a merger is large or has an EU dimension?
- On what basis are mergers judged by the Competition and Markets Authority in the UK?
- What is a ‘virtual bid’ period? How did the ‘pusu’ bid deadline operate before the changes were introduced in 2011?
- Pfizer’s bid for Astrazeneca did not succeed in May 2014. Some people blamed the collapse of the deal on the 28-day ‘pusu’ deadline and rule 2.5 (i) of the code. What is rule 2.5 (i) and how did it contribute towards the failure of this deal?
After initial resistance, the brewer SAB Miller last week agreed to a merger with Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev). The merging parties own over 400 brands between them. These include Budweiser, Stella Artois and Beck’s, which are owned by AB InBev, and Peroni and Grolsch by SAB Miller. Furthermore, they are currently the number one and two firms in the market respectively. If the merger goes ahead the new entity would control almost one third of global beer production.
This merger represents the continuation of AB InBev’s aggressive expansion plans through mergers and acquisitions as it follows its merger with Interbrew in 2004 and with InBev in 2008. It seems that one key attraction of a merger with SAB Miller is its dominant position in rapidly growing African markets.
A second motivation for the merger appears to be an attempt to counter the rise of small independent craft beer producers. For example, in the USA craft beer’s share of the market has grown from 5 to 11% since 2011. It has been suggested that the leading breweries combining forces represents one of several strategies being used to try to counter the threat of craft breweries. Additional strategies include creating their own craft products that are marketed as independant products and attempting to buy-up craft beer producers. For example, in 2011 AB InBev purchased the Goose Island brand.
Commenting on the planned merger between SAB Miller and AB InBev, a spokesman for the Campaign for Real Ale group expressed concern that:
independent beers may find it harder to get space in pubs and supermarkets because of the increased market presence of AB InBev.
Given the market positions of SAB Miller and AB InBev, it is likely that their merger will face considerable scrutiny by competition agencies in a number of jurisdictions. In fact it has been reported that plans have already been set in motion to sell SAB Miller’s interests in the USA to try to placate potential concerns from competition agencies in the USA and China.
Interestingly, SAB Miller has also protected itself by negotiating a clause that requires AB InBev to pay it $3bn if the deal falls through, for example on competition grounds. It remains to be seen what conditions competition authorities will require before the merger can go ahead and it is even possible they will try to completely block the deal.
Why beer drinkers lose in the SABMiller-AB InBev merger Fortune, John Colley (13/10/15)
Can craft beer survive AB InBev? The Budweiser maker’s acquisitions are unsettling the craft movement Bloomberg Business, Devin Leonard (25/06/15)
- How important do you think it is to consumers who a particular brand of beer is produced by?
- How serious a threat do you think independent craft beer producers are to the leading breweries?
- Outline some of the factors competition agencies will look at when they consider the merger between SAB Miller and AB InBev.
- Why might AB InBev have been willing to agree to pay a fee to SAB Miller in the event of the merger falling through?