Oligopoly: it’s a complex market structure and although closer to the monopoly end of the ‘Market Structure Spectrum’, it can still be a highly competitive market. The characteristics are well-documented and key to the degree of competition within any oligopoly is the number of competitors and extent to which there are barriers to entry.
The greater the barriers and the fewer the competitors the greater the power the established firms have. This can then spell trouble for pricing and hence for consumers. The following articles are just some examples of the oligopolies that exist around the world and some of the benefits and problems that accompany them.
Oligopoly of PSU oil cos reason for high ATF prices The Indian Express, Smita Aggarwal (30/4/12)
Group energy buying hits the UK headlines Spend Matters UK/Europe(18/1/11)
German cartel office probes petrol companies on pricing Fox Business (4/4/12)
Gov’t unveils steps to lower fuel prices Yonhap News (19/4/12)
How big banks threaten our economy Wall Street Journal, Warren Stephens (29/4/12)
UK Governance: Call for Whitehall to simplify the landscape for SME suppliers to win more government contracts The Information Daily (26/4/12)
Pumping up the price: fuel cartels in Germany April 2012
Energy profit margins up by over 700% October 2011
Every basket helps October 2011
The art of oligopoly December 2010
- What are the assumptions of an oligopolistic market structure?
- Consider (a) the energy sector and (b) the banking sector. To what extent does each market conform with the assumptions of an oligopoly?
- In the ‘Spend Matters’ article, a group of people in a Lincolnshire village formed a local buying consortium to negotiate deals for heating oil. What could we refer to this as?
- To what extent is an oligopoly in the public interest?
- Explain how barriers to entry in oligopolies affect the competitiveness and efficiency of a market.
- Illustrate how an oligopolistic market structure can fix prices and hence exploit consumers.
- How have the actions of the big oil companies in both the UK and Germany been against independent retailers and the consumer interest?
- What action can governments take to break up oligopolies? Will it always be effective?
EDF, one of the big six energy retailers in the UK, has agreed to pay out a record £4.5m. £1m of this will go to funding an energy advice centre; the rest will go to providing £50 each to 70,000 ‘vulnerable customers’ who struggle to pay their bills and who receive the government’s warm home discount.
The agreement was made with Ofgem after an investigation into mis-selling, both on the doorstep and over the phone. Customers were persuaded to switch energy suppliers with the promise of savings on their bills. As the FT articles states:
Ofgem found that EDF’s sales force did not always provide complete information to customers on some contract terms, or on the way in which their monthly direct debits had been calculated. In some cases, telesales agents claimed savings without knowing whether they were accurate for the specific customer on the call, the regulator said.
Ofgem did not accuse the company of directly sanctioning such practices, but rather of weak monitoring and control of its sales force’s actions.
The £4.5m payment is in lieu of a fine. Consumer groups have welcomed this, preferring the company to pay compensation to a fine, which would have simply increased Treasury funding.
It is the first settlement in a broader investigation into mis-selling, involving four of the six major suppliers.
EDF to pay out £4.5m in mis-selling case Financial Times, Guy Chazan and Hannah Kuchler (9/3/12)
EDF agrees to pay £4.5m misleading sales ‘fine’ Guardian, Lisa Bachelor (9/3/12)
Is it a fine? Is it a penalty? No, it’s EDF’s mystery Ofgem payment Management Today, Rebecca Burn-Callander (9/3/12)
‘Misleading claims’ cost EDF a £4.5m payout from watchdog , Independent, Tom Bawden (10/3/12)
EDF Energy agrees to pay a £4.5m ‘fine’ BBC News (9/3/12)
EDF Energy agrees to pay a £4.5m ‘fine’ BBC News, John Moylan (9/3/12)
More energy payouts could follow EDF’s £4.5m The Telegraph, Kara Gammell (9/3/12)
EDF energy agrees to invest £4.5 million to help vulnerable customers following Ofgem investigation Ofgem
- What types of market failure are present in the energy supply industry?
- What are the arguments for and against fines being paid directly to victims of crime rather than to the government?
- In what ways could the energy industry be made more competitive?
- Why do the utilities, such as gas, electricity and water, require their own regulator rather than simply being subject to competition law?
In an earlier blog Energy profits margins up by over 700% we analysed the increasing pressure on many households as they saw their energy bills increase in price year on year. This helped the big six energy companies achieve a 700% rise in their profits.
However, it also sparked interest by the regulator Ofgem, which was looking to ensure that consumers found it easier to make price comparisons and create a more competitive market. One issue that Ofgem were looking into was how to make the energy sector more open to competition, given that the big six companies own the power stations and hence this acts as a barrier to the entry of new firms.
The latest announcements from some of the big energy companies will therefore come as a pleasant turn of events for Ofgem. On Wednesday January 11th 2012, EDF announced that it would be cutting its energy prices by 5% from 7th February in response to a fall in wholesale costs. Only a day later, Npower announced its plans to cut its tariffs by 5% from 1st February. British Gas cut its prices by 5% with immediate effect and SSE will reduce its gas prices by 4.5% from March 26th.
Is this a sign that the market is becoming more competitive thanks to Ofgem or is there another explanation? For the past 2 winters, temperatures have been consistently below freezing and hence demand for gas/electricity was at an all time high, speaking concerns of gas shortages. However, with the mild winter we are currently experiencing (I hope I haven’t jinxed it!) demand for heating etc has been significantly lower, which has reduced wholesale costs and the big six companies have begun to pass these savings on to their customers. Yet, despite this seemingly good news, are they being as ‘kind’ as we think? Most of the companies are cutting their prices by about 5%, yet wholesale prices fell by significantly more than that. Furthermore, over the past few years, customers have seen their tariffs increase significantly – by a lot more than 5%. To some extent, this confirms the criticism levelled at the energy sector – when costs rise, they are quick to pass on the full costs to their customers. But, when costs fall, they are slow to pass on only a fraction of their cost savings. The following articles consider this issue.
Npower will cut gas prices by 5% BBC News (13/1/12)
EDF cuts gas price by 5% Reuters, Karolin Schaps and Henning Gloystein (11/1/12)
British Gas readies push to promote price cut MarketingWeek, Lara O’Reilly (13/1/12)
British Gas cuts prices by 5% Independent (13/1/12)
Energy suppliers do battle in the war of modest price cuts The Telegraph, Emily Godsen (13/1/12)
British Gas and SSE follow EDF Energy price cut Financial Times, Guy Chazan and Sylvia Pfeifer (11/1/12)
British Gas cuts electricity prices, but keeps gas on hold Guardian, Hillary Osborne (12/1/12)
British gas and SSE announce price cuts (including video) BBC News (12/1/12)
More power firms cut energy tariffs The Press Association (12/1/12)
- In which market structure would you place the energy sector? Explain your answer.
- What is the role of Ofgem? What powers does it (and the other regulators have)?
- Using a demand and supply diagram to help you, explain why wholesale costs have fallen.
- Why have the energy companies only passed on about 5% of cost savings to their customers, despite falls in wholesale costs of significantly more than that?
- Do you think price wars are likely to break out in this sector? Are they in the interests of consumers?
- Why did energy prices increase so quickly last year and the year before? Use a diagram to help you.