Each week, BBC Radio 4 broadcasts readings from a book serialised in five 15-minute episodes. In the week beginning 18 January 2021, the readings were from English Pastoral: An Inheritance by James Rebanks, a farmer from the Cumbrian fells. His farm is relatively small, covering 185 acres.
He has attempted to make it much more sustainable and less intensive, reintroducing traditional Herdwick sheep, having a mixture of cows and sheep rather than just sheep, a greater sub-division of fields, and more natural scrubland, peatbogs and trees. As a result, soil quality has improved and there has been an explosion of biodiversity, with an abundance of wild flowers and insects.
Apart from being an autobiography of his time as a farmer and his attempt to move towards more traditional methods, the book examines broader issues of agricultural sustainability. It looks at the pressures of consumers wanting cheap food, the market power of supermarkets and wholesalers, the cost pressures on farmers pushing them towards monoculture to achieve economies of scale, and the role of the agrichemicals industry promoting fertilisers, feeds and pesticides which bring short-term financial gains to farmers, but which cause longer-term damage to the land and to biodiversity.
Rebanks has gained quite a lot of media attention after the publication of his first book, The Shepherd’s Life, including being one of the guests on Desert Island Discs and the subject of an episode of The Food Programme.
Listen to the Food Programme podcast and try answering the questions, which are all based on the podcast in the order of the points made in the interview.
- What are the incentives of an unregulated market for food that result in monoculture and a loss of biodiversity?
- To what extent are consumers responsible for changes in farming methods?
- Have the changes helped the urban poor?
- How is the monopsony power of supermarkets and food wholesalers impacting on food production and the pattern of agriculture?
- There are various (private) economies of scale in food production, but these often involve substantial external costs and long-term private costs too. How does this impact on land use?
- What are some of the limits of technology in increasing crop, meat and dairy yields?
- Will more recent changes in the pattern of food consumption help to increase mixed farming and biodiversity?
- Is it ‘rational’ for many farmers to continue with intensive farming with high levels of artificial fertilisers and pesticides?
- Is diversity in farming across farms within a local area a public good? If so, how could such diversity be achieved?
- How can farmers be encouraged to think and act holistically?
- Is there a trade-off between food output and biodiversity?
- What are the dangers in the UK reaching an agricultural trade deal with the USA?
- What are the benefits and costs of encouraging local food markets?
In the last few years there have been growing concerns (see here for example) that markets in the USA are becoming increasingly dominated by a small number of firms. It is feared that the result of this will be a reduction in competition. Consistent with this, evidence suggests that the profits these firms make have increased. Last month The Economist and the Resolution Foundation published evidence (see references below) suggesting a similar picture may be emerging in Britain.
The Economist divided the British economy into 600 sub-sectors and found that in 58% of these the share of total revenue accruing to the 4 biggest firms had increased since 2008. The Resolution Foundation found a similar picture, especially in manufacturing industries where from 2004-16 the top five firms’ share of total revenue increased by over 10%.
Economic theory would suggest that as markets become more concentrated prices are likely to rise and The Economist cites research showing that mark-ups charged by firms in Britain have indeed risen. In addition to consumers facing higher prices, there is also concern that the lack of competition both in the USA and the UK is leading to lower wages being paid to workers. On the other hand, unlike in the USA, the evidence from the UK does not so far suggest there has also been an increase in corporate profits. Instead, it appears that the more successful firms’ profits have increased at the expense of their rivals.
This evidence on profits is line with a number of arguments that suggest we should perhaps be less concerned when markets are dominated by a small number of firms. Large firms may benefit from economies of scale and, being sufficiently large may be necessary for firms to innovate in new products and processes. Furthermore, high market shares may result from the competitive process as a reward for a firm developing a unique product or being more efficient than its rivals.
The Economist cites the supermarket industry as an example where concentrated is high, but competition is intense. Interestingly, this is a market where the British competition authorities have previously been concerned about the level of competition and spent considerable amounts of time investigating.
Despite these two opposing viewpoints, overall, The Economist argues strongly that we should be concerned about the situation in Britain. Not only are prices too high and wages too low, but growth in productivity is slow, even for the leading firms. Furthermore, they make clear that the situation may worsen following Brexit. It is argued that:
leaving the EU’s single market and customs union would reduce trade, easing competitive pressure from abroad.
This is consistent with evidence that joining the EC in the mid 1970s increased foreign competition in the UK and helped to end the low productivity growth that had plagued the economy since the 1930s.
Furthermore, it is suggested that:
to attract investment the government might look more favourably on proposed mergers—and loosening regulations would be easier outside the EU’s competition regime.
Therefore, it is clear that in the future there will be a vital role for the UK’s competition authority to remain independent of political objectives and aim to promote competition. In particular, they must prevent mergers that raise concentration and harm competition and intervene if they believe firms are abusing their dominant positions. Of course, following Brexit the case load of the competition authority in the UK will increase dramatically as they have to take on cases previously dealt with by the European Commission. One estimate is that it will need to look at around 40% more merger cases. It will certainly be interesting to see how competition in markets in Britain evolves over the next few years and the role competition policy plays in regulating this process.
- Outline the ways in which concentration in a market is usually measured.
- Explain the different price levels that arise under the alternative models of market structure.
- Why do you think competition is currently so intense in the supermarket industry?
Global merger and acquisition deals with a combined value of £2.7 trillion ($4.06 trillion) have taken place so far this year (1 Jan to 3 Nov). This is a 38% increase on the same period in 2014 ($2.94 trillion) and even surpasses the previous record high for the same period in 2007 ($3.93 trillion) (see the chart from the Dealogic article linked below).
Measured by dollar value, October was the fifth biggest month in Mergers and Acquisitions (M&As) history with the announcement of $514bn of actual or proposed deals. These included:
||the proposed £71 billion deal to acquire SABMiller (the world’s second largest brewer) by AB InBev (the world’s largest brewer);
||the $67bn takeover of network storage provider EMC by Dell (the world’s third largest computer supplier);
||the proposed deal to acquire Allergan (producer of Botox) by Pfizer (the producer of Viagra).
Although the dollar value of M&As was extremely large in October the actual number of deals, 2177, was significantly lower than the average of 3521 over the previous 9 months.
Are these large M&As in the interests of the consumer? One advantage is that the newly combined firms may have lower average costs. Reports in the press, following the announcement of most M&As, often discuss the potential for reductions in duplicate resources and rationalisation. After the successful completion of a takeover two previously separate departments, such as finance, law or HRM, may be combined into one office. If the newly integrated department is (i) smaller than the previous two departments added together and (ii) can operate just as effectively, then average costs will fall. This is simply an example of an economy of scale.
Average costs will also decrease if x-inefficiency within the acquired business can be reduced or eliminated. X-inefficiency exists when an organisation incurs higher costs than are necessary to produce any given output. In other words it is not producing in the cheapest possible way. In a number of takeovers in the brewing industry, AB InBev has gained a fearsome reputation for minimising costs and removing any waste or slack in acquired organisations. In an interview with the Financial Times, its chief executive, Carlos Brito, stated that:
“In any company, there’s 20 per cent that lead, 70 per cent that follow and 10 per cent that do nothing. So the 10 per cent, of course, you need to get rid of.”
If any reduction in costs results in lower prices without any lessening in the quality of the good or service, then of course the customer will benefit. However, when two relatively large organisations combine, it may result in a newly merged business with considerable market power. With a fall in the price elasticity of demand for its goods and services, this bigger company may be able to increase its prices and make greater revenues.
An important responsibility of a taxpayer-funded competition authority is to make judgements about whether or not large M&As are in the public interest. For example, the Competition and Markets Authority in the UK investigates deals if the target company has a UK turnover that exceeds £70 million, or if the newly combined business has a market share that is equal to or exceeds 25 per cent. If the CMA concludes that an M&A would lead to a substantial lessening of competition in the market, then it could prohibit the deal from taking place. This has only happened on 9 occasions in the last 12 years. If competition concerns are identified, it is far more likely that CMA will allow the deal to go ahead but with certain conditions attached. This has happened 29 times in the last 12 years and the conditions are referred to as remedies.
The CMA has recently published a report (Understanding past merger remedies) that attempts to evaluate the relative success of the various remedies it has used in 13 M&A cases.
Are big mergers bad for consumers? BBC News, Daniel Thomas (30/10/15)
Mergers and acquisitions madness may be about to stop The Guardian (11/10/15)
M&A deal activity on pace for record year The Wall Street Journal, Dana Mattioli and Dan Strumpf (10/08/15) [Note: if you can’t see the full article, try clearing cookies (Ctrl+Shift+Delete)]
Global M&A Volume Surpasses $4tr in 2015 YTD Dealogic, Anthony Read (04/11/15)
M&A Volumes Weaken in October despite Megadeals Financial Times, James Fontanella-Khan and Arash Massoudi (01/11/15)
The merger of Dell and EMC is further proof that the IT industry is remaking itself The Economist (12/10/15)
- Using a cost curve diagram, explain the difference between economies of scale and x-efficiency.
- Explain why a takeover or merger might reduce the price elasticity of demand for the goods or services produced by the newly combined firm.
- Explain how the CMA determines the size of the appropriate market when calculating a firm’s market share.
- Draw a diagram to illustrate the simultaneous impact of greater market power and lower average costs that might result from a horizontal merger. Consider the impact on consumer, producer and total surplus.
- What is the difference between a structural and a behavioural remedy?
Many of the major industries in Australia are oligopolies/oligopsonies. Examples include banking, telecoms, supermarkets, insurance and iron ore. The dominant firms in these markets have been accused of exploiting their market power, both in charging high prices to consumers and driving down the prices paid to suppliers. The result, it is claimed, is that they have been making excessive profits.
But things may be changing. With the rise of online trading, barriers to entry in these markets have been falling. Many of the new entrants are established firms in other countries and hence already have economies of scale.
The first article below examines the challenge to established oligopolists in Australia.
Articles and blogs
The death of the oligopoly: Australia’s incumbents face new rivals Financial Review (Australia), Michael Smith (21/4/15)
Australian Oligopolies The Grapevine, Adam Dimech (27/12/14)
Breaking up Australia’s oligopolies Ashurst Australia (14/8/13)
- Find out which are the major firms in Australia in the five industries identified above. What is their market share and how has this been changing?
- What barriers to entry exist in each of these industries in Australia? To what extent have they been declining?
- What can new entrants do to overcome the barriers to entry?
- What technological developments allow other companies to challenge Foxtel’s pay television monopoly?
- To what extent are developments in the supermarket industry in Australia similar to those in the UK?
- To what extent does Australia benefit from increased globalisation?
In an earlier post, Elizabeth looked at oligopolistic competition between supermarkets. Although supermarkets have been accused of tacit price collusion on many occasions in the past, price competition has been growing. And recent developments show that it is likely to get a lot fiercer as the ‘big four’ try to take on the ‘deep discounters’, Aldi and Lidl.
Part of the reason for the growth in price competition has been a change in shopping behaviour. Rather than doing one big shop per week in Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda or Morrisons, many consumers are doing smaller shops as they seek to get more for their money. A pattern is emerging for many consumers who are getting their essentials in Aldi or Lidl, their ‘special’ items in more upmarket shops, such as Waitrose, Marks & Spencer or small high street shops (such as bakers and ethnic food shops) and getting much fewer products from the big four. Other consumers, on limited incomes, who have seen their real incomes fall as prices have risen faster than wages, are doing virtually all their shopping in the deep discounters. As the Guardian article below states:
A steely focus on price and simplicity, against a backdrop of falling living standards that has sharpened customers’ eye for a bargain, has seen the discounter grab market share from competitors and transform what we expect from our weekly shop.
The result is that the big four are seeing their market share falling, as the chart shows. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) In the past year, Tesco’s market share has fallen from 29.9% to 28.1%, Asda’s from 17.8% to 16.3%, Sainsbury’s from 16.9% to 16.2% and Morrisons’ from 11.7% to 11.0%. By contrast, Aldi’s has risen from 3.9% to 5.4% and Lidl’s from 3.1% to 4.0%, while Waitrose’s has also risen, from 4.7% to 4.9%. And it’s not just market share that has been falling for the big four. Profits have also fallen, as have share prices. Sales revenues in the four weeks to 13 September are down 1.6% on the same period a year ago; sales volumes are down 1.9%.
But can the big four take on the discounters at their own game? Morrison’s has just announced a form of price match scheme called ‘Match & More’. If a shopper finds that a comparable grocery shop is cheaper in not only Tesco, Sainsbury’s or Asda, but also in Aldi or Lidl, then ‘Match & More users will automatically get the difference back in points on their card. Shoppers also will be able to collect extra points on hundreds of featured products and fuel’. When the difference has risen to a total £5 (5000 points), the shopper will get a £5 voucher at the till. The idea is to encourage customers to stay loyal to Morrisons.
But what if Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s do the same? What will be the impact on their prices and profits. Will there be a race to the bottom in prices, or will they be able to keep prices higher than the deep discounters, hoping that many customers will not cash in their vouchers?
But if effectively the big four felt forced to cut their prices to match Aldi and Lidl, could they afford to do so? This depends on their comparative average costs. At first sight, it might be thought that the big four could succeed in profitably matching the discounters, thereby clawing back market share. After all, they are much bigger and it might be thought that they would benefit from greater economies of scale and hence lower costs.
But it is not as simple as this. The discounters have lower costs than the big four. Their shops are typically in areas where rents or land prices are lower; their shops are smaller; they carry many fewer lines and thus gain economies of scale on each line; they have a much higher proportion of own-brand products; products are displayed in the boxes they come in, thus saving on the staff costs of unpacking them and placing them on shelves; they buy what is cheapest and thus do not always display the same brands.
So is Morrison’s a wise strategy? Will other supermarkets be forced to follow? Is there a prisoners’ dilemma here and, if so, is there any form of collusion in which the big four can engage which is not illegal? Can the big four differentiate themselves from the discounters and the up-market supermarkets in ways that will attract back customers?
It is worrying times for the big four.
- Heavy Discounters Up Pressure On The UK’s Big Four Supermarkets
Alliance News, Rowena Harris-Doughty (3/6/14)
- Tesco loses more market share as supermarket sector slows to record low
CITY A.M., Catherine Neilan (23/9/14)
- Record low for grocery market growth as inflation disappears
Kantar World Panel, Fraser McKevitt (23/9/14)
- How Aldi’s price plan shook up Tesco, Morrison’s, Asda and Sainsbury’s
The Guardian, Sarah Butler (29/9/14)
- Sainsbury’s shares drop 7% on falling sales report
BBC News (1/10/14)
- Sainsbury results: the reaction
Food Manufacture, Mike Stones (3/10/14)
- Morrisons Becomes First Of Big Four Grocers To Price Match Aldi, Lidl
Alliance News, Rowena Harris-Doughty (2/10/14)
- UK: Morrisons Takes On Discounters With Price Match Card
- Morrisons to match the prices of Aldi and Lidl
The Telegraph, Graham Ruddick (2/10/14)
- Three reasons why Morrisons price-matching Aldi and Lidl is not a ‘gamechanger’
The Telegraph, Graham Ruddick (2/10/14)
- Would it be possible for the big four to price match the deep discounters?
- What is meant by the prisoners’ dilemma? In what ways are the big four in a prisoners’ dilemma situation?
- Assume that you had to advise Tesco on it strategy? What advise would you give it and why?
- Assume that two firms, M and A, are playing the following ‘game’: firm M pledges to match firm A’s prices; and firm A pledges to sell at 2% below M’s price. What will be the outcome of this game?
- Is Morrisons wise to adopt its ‘Match & More’ strategy?
- Why is it difficult for Morrisons to make a like-for-like comparison with Aldi and Lidl in its ‘Match & More’ strategy?
- Why may Aldi and Lidl benefit from Morrisons’ strategy?