In the following article, Joseph Stiglitz argues that power rather than competition is a better starting point for analysing the working of capitalism. People’s rewards depend less on their marginal product than on their power over labour or capital (or lack of it).
As inequality has widened and concerns about it have grown, the competitive school, viewing individual returns in terms of marginal product, has become increasingly unable to explain how the economy works.
Thus the huge bonuses, often of millions of pounds per year, paid to many CEOs and other senior executives, are more a reflection of their power to set their bonuses, rather than of their contribution to their firms’ profitability. And these excessive rewards are not competed away.
Stiglitz examines how changes in technology and economic structure have led to the increase in power. Firms are more able to erect barriers to entry; network economies give advantages to incumbents; many firms, such as banks, are able to lobby governments to protect their market position; and many governments allow powerful vested interests to remain unchecked in the mistaken belief that market forces will provide the brakes on the accumulation and abuse of power. Monopoly profits persist and there is too little competition to erode them. Inequality deepens.
According to Stiglitz, the rationale for laissez-faire disappears if markets are based on entrenched power and exploitation.
Monopoly’s New Era Chazen Global Insights, Columbia Business School, Joseph Stiglitz (13/5/16)
- What are the barriers to entry that allow rewards for senior executives to grow more rapidly than median wages?
- What part have changes in technology played in the increase in inequality?
- How are the rewards to senior executives determined?
- Provide a critique of Stiglitz’ analysis from the perspective of a proponent of laissez-faire.
- If Stiglitz analysis is correct, what policy implications follow from it?
- How might markets which are currently dominated by big business be made more competitive?
- T0 what extent have the developments outlined by Stiglitz been helped or hindered by globalisation?
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?
The government plans to improve broadband access across the country and BT is a key company within this agenda. However, one of the problems with BT concerns its natural monopoly over the cable network and the fact that this restricts competition and hence might prevent the planned improvements.
Ofcom, the communications watchdog has now said that BT must open up its cable network, making it easier for other companies to access. This will allow companies such as Sky, Vodafone and TalkTalk to invest in the internet network in the UK, addressing their criticisms that BT has under-invested in Openreach and this is preventing universal access to decent and affordable broadband. There have been calls for Ofcom to require BT and Openreach to separate, but Ofcom’s report hasn’t required this, though has noted that it ‘remains an option’.
BT has been criticised as relying on old cables that are not sufficient to provide the superfast broadband that the government wants. The report may come as a relief to BT who had perhaps expected that Ofcom might require it to sell its Openreach operation, but it will also remain concerned about Ofcom’s constant monitoring in the years to come. BT commented:
“Openreach is already one of the most heavily regulated businesses in the world but we have volunteered to accept tighter regulation … We are happy to let other companies use our ducts and poles if they are genuinely keen to invest very large sums as we have done.”
Its rivals will also be in two minds about the report, happy that some action will be taken, but wanting more, as Ofcom’s report suggests that “Openreach still has an incentive to make decisions in the interests of BT, rather than BT’s competitors”. A spokesperson for Vodafone said:
“BT still remains a monopoly provider with a regulated business running at a 28% profit margin …We urge Ofcom to ensure BT reinvests the £4bn in excess profits Openreach has generated over the last decade in bringing fibre to millions of premises across the country, and not just make half-promises to spend an unsubstantiated amount on more old copper cable.”
The impact of Ofcom’s report on the competitiveness of this market will be seen over the coming years and with a freer market, we might expect prices to come down and see improved broadband coverage across the UK. In order to achieve the government’s objective with regards to broadband coverage, a significant investment is needed in the network. With BT having to relinquish its monopoly power and the market becoming more competitive, this may be the first step towards universal access to superfast broadband. The following articles consider this report and its implications.
Ofcom opens a road to faster broadband The Guardian, Harriet Meyer and Rob Davies (28/2/16)
Ofcom: BT must open up its Openreach network Sky News (25/2/16)
How Ofcom’s review of BT Openreach could improve your internet service Independent, Doug Bolton (25/2/16)
Ofcom’s digital review boosts faltering broadband network Financial Times, Daniel Thomas (25/2/16)
The Observer view on broadband speeds in Britain The Observer, Editorial (28/2/16)
Ofcom tells BT to open up cable network to rivals’ BBC News (25/2/16)
Ofcom should go further and break up BT Financial Times, John Gapper (25/2/16)
BT escapes forced Openreach spin-off but Ofcom tightens regulations International Business Times, Bauke Schram (25/2/16)
- Why does BT have a monopoly and how might this affect the price, output and profits in this market?
- Ofcom’s report suggests that the market must be opened up and this would increase competitiveness. How is this expected to work?
- What are the benefits and costs of using regulation in a case such as this, as opposed to some other form of intervention?
- How might a more competitive market increase investment in this market?
- If the market does become more competitive, what be the likely consequences for consumers and firms?
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)
- What are the benefits to Sainsbury’s of taking over Argos?
- Why have many critics been surprised by this take-over?
- What is meant by a first mover advantage?
- Do you think that grocery retailers should diversify further or focus on their core business?
- Commentators suggest that delivery costs more to retailers than the price charged to consumers. Can you illustrate this using cost and revenue curves?
- 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?
- Do you think this take over will cause any concerns by competition authorities?
German Engineering has dominated for decades and is seen as the pinnacle of quality and the key to manufacturing long-lasting products. But are long-lasting products a good strategy for a company? If products break quickly, customers need to replace them and this encourages more spending. But does this encourage customers to switch to other suppliers? Instead, do high quality products that don’t require replacement but demand a higher price offset this lack of repeat custom?
Markus Miele is the Chief Executive of Miele, the German domestic appliance manufacturer and he takes a personal interest in his products and customers. Typical appliances from Miele can cost up to twice as much as similar appliances from other companies and yet this company is going from strength to strength. Rather than selling products that need frequent replacements, Miele is proud of its strategy to retain customers by selling products at a very high price, knowing that they will last for years. Customers appear equally willing to pay this high price for big consumer durables and their long-lasting nature is clearly encouraging its customers to buy other products too. This strategy has been so successful that other big companies are now targeting these customers. Anthony Williams, from GfK said:
“Evidence suggests manufacturers are putting in money to ensure good build quality…There are so many standards that now have to be adhered to, particularly for hi-tech products, by the nature of the product they have to make sure the [manufacturing] environment is very carefully monitored.”
The following article from BBC News considers the market for domestic appliances and the role of durability.
Can you charge double and still keep your customers coming back? BBC News, Lucy Hooker (2/10/15)
- How important is the concept of price elasticity of demand in determining a company’s strategy?
- If other firms are targeting a similar strategy to that of Miele, what might this mean for prices?
- How does the brand ‘made in Germany’ affect the demand for a product? Is there imperfect information here?
- With increase competition, companies such as Miele may be pressured into moving into cheaper production markets. How would this affect the company?
- Will the recent scandal at VW have a negative impact on companies such as Miele who rely on the ‘brand Germany’?