The energy sector has a history of criticism with regards to prices and practices. In the past, Ofgem have tried to make the sector more competitive, by ensuring that price comparisons are easier. At the beginning of this year, many of the big six providers announced price cuts, but within the next few weeks, we will see the reverse occurring, as energy prices begin to rise.
British Gas has announced price rises of 6% from 16th November that will affect over 8 million customers by adding approximately £80 per year to the annual dual fuel bill. Npower will also put its prices up 10 days later (8.8% for gas and 9.1% for electricity), creating higher bills for 3 million people.
In January of this year, when we saw energy prices fall, it was not solely due to Ofgem’s findings. We had a relatively mild winter, which reduced the demand for energy and this fed into lower prices. As the winter now approaches once more, demand for energy will begin to increase, feeding into prices that are now higher.
Furthermore, the energy companies have said that a range of external factors are also adding to their costs and putting increasing pressure on them to increase their charges. Npower’s Chief Commercial Officer said:
“There is never a good time to increase energy bills, particularly when so many people are working hard to make ends meet…But the costs of new statutory schemes, increases in distribution charges and the price of gas for the coming winter are all being driven up by external factors, for example government policy”
Significant investment is needed in the energy sector. Energy companies are required to set aside money for maintaining and improving the national grid and investing in renewable energy, such as wind and solar power. In order for the energy companies to fund these investments, more money must be raised and the logical method is to put up prices. However, critics are simply blaming ‘these very big lazy companies’ who are passing ‘above-inflation price rises’ onto already squeezed households.
Part of this is undoubtedly to do with the market structure of this sector. A typical oligopoly creates a market which, under certain circumstances, can be highly competitive, but because of barriers to entry that prevent new firms from entering the market may charge higher prices and be inefficient. Indeed, Ofgem has plans to reduce the power of the main energy providers by forcing them to auction off some of the electricity they generate. The aim of this is to free up the market and make it more competitive.
While only three providers have announced price rises, it is inevitable that the other three will follow. The relative increases will create incentives for consumers to switch providers, but crucial to this is an ability to understand the different tariffs on offer and lack of clarity on this has been a big criticism previously levelled at the energy sector. Indeed, half of UK customers have never switched energy providers. Perhaps this is the time to think about it, firstly as a means of saving money and secondly as a means of putting the energy companies in competition with each other. The following articles consider this market.
Energy price rises: how to switch, save and safeguard your supply The Guardian, Mark King (12/10/12)
Npower and British Gas raise energy prices (including video) BBC News (12/10/12)
Energy price rises? We’re like turkeys voting for Christmas The Telegraph, Rosie Murray-West (12/10/12)
British Gas and Npower to raise prices fuelling fears of a ‘long, cold winter’ for more households Independent
, Graeme Evans (12/10/12)Wholesale prices rise as energy costs jump Wall Street Journal, Sarah Portlock and Jeffrey Sparshott (12/10/12)
British Gas raises gas and electricity prices by 6pc The Telegraph (12/10/12)
Osborne warns energy firms over price hikes Reuters (12/10/12)
Energy price hikes to take effect from next week Independent, Simon Read(13/10/12)
- What are the main reasons influencing the recent price rises? In each case, explain whether it is a demand- or supply-side factor.
- Using your answer from question 1, illustrate the effect of it on a demand and supply diagram.
- Which features of an oligopolistic market are relevant to the energy sector. How can we use them to explain these higher prices.
- How has government policy affected the energy sector and energy prices?
- Why are customers reluctant to change energy providers? Does this further the energy company’s ability to raise prices?
- Are there any government policies that could be implemented to reduce the power of the energy companies?
EU environmental legislation is beginning to cause problems in the UK. As it prohibits coal-fired power plants from generating power, they will be forced to close. This means that the UK will be forced to rely more on imported energy, which could lead to price rises, as energy shortages emerge.
Ofgem, the energy regulator has said that the risk of a gas shortage is likely to be at its highest in about 3 years time, as the amount of spare capacity is expected to fall from its current 14% to just 4%. Energy shortages have been a concern for some time, but the report from Ofgem indicates that the predicted time frame for these energy shortages will now be sooner than expected. Ofgem has said that the probability of a black-out has increased from 1 in 3,300 years now to 1 in 12 years by 2015.
The government, however, has said that its Energy Bill soon to be published will set out plans that will secure power supply for the UK. Part of this will be through investment, leading to new methods of generating energy. The Chief Executive of Ofgem, Alistair Buchanan said:
‘The unprecedented challenges in facing Britain’s energy industry … to attract the investment to deliver secure, sustainable and affordable energy supplies for consumers, still remain.’
One particular area that will see growth is wind-farms: a controversial method of power supply, due to the eye-sore they present (to some eyes, at least) and the noise pollution they generate. But with spare capacity predicted to fall to 4%, they will be a much needed investment.
Perhaps of more concern for the everyday household will be the impact on energy prices. As we know, when anything is scarce, the price begins to rise. As energy shortages become more of a concern, the market mechanism will begin to push up prices. With other bills already at record highs and incomes remaining low, the average household is likely to feel the squeeze. The following articles and the Ofgem report considers this issue.
Electricity Capacity Assessment Ofgem Report to Government, Ofgem (5/12/12)
Power shortage risks by 2015, Ofgem warns BBC News (5/10/12)
Britain faces risk of blackout The Telegraph (5/10/12)
Ofgem estimates tightening margins for electricity generation Reuters (5/10/12)
Electricity shortages are ‘risk’ by 2015 Sky News (5/10/12)
Future energy bills could give customers a nasty shock ITV News, Chris Choi (5/10/12)
- What is the role of Ofgem in the UK?
- Explain the way in which prices adjust as resources become more or less scarce. Use a demand and supply diagram to illustrate your answer.
- To what extent do you think the UK should be forced to close down its coal-fired plants, as a part of EU environmental legislation?
- Are there any market failures associated with the use of wind farms? Where possible, use a diagram to illustrate your answer.
- Explain why an energy shortage will lead to an increase in imports and how this in turn will affect energy prices.
- What are the government’s plans to secure energy provision in the UK? Do you think they are likely to be effective?
In the blog A surprising rise we analysed the recent trends in the housing market. In August house prices increased the fastest since January 2010 and this left the average UK house price at just under £165,000.
Whilst this has still meant getting on the property ladder is only a dream for many, for those wishing to buy in London, they will, on average, need to find £368,000. London wages are significantly higher than in the rest of the country, so it is hardly surprising that average house prices are too.
However, an average London wage won’t get you close to the following property! With a reported asking price of £300m, it would be the highest priced house ever sold in London. Undoubtedly, you get a fair amount for your money, including 45 bedrooms and 60,000 square feet, but is this worth £300m? A property expert believes that it will be sold privately, not publicly, as it is such a rare property and that naturally, there will only be a few potential buyers!!
So, who are the likely buyers? You won’t be able to walk into a local estate agent and ask for a viewing. Only certain people with the funds to spare are being offered it. Many foreigners have been purchasing property in London, looking for a safe investment, with the trouble in Europe. This has led to London property prices rising very rapidly. But surely £300m is a little over the top! Assuming the asking price is paid, in order for a potential buyer to get any consumer surplus, he or she would have to value the property at significantly more than £300m – especially as stamp duty of approximately £21m would have to be paid.
The following few articles look at this record property price. (By the way, the house in the picture at the top of this blog is not the house that’s for sale: it’s a girls’ school in Tetbury. I don’t know how much it’s worth!)
London’s most expensive house yet, at £300m? BBC News, Ian Pollock (13/9/12)
London mansion on sale for record £300m Telegraph, Matthew Sparkes (13/9/12)
Money’s not too tight for buyer of £300m London mansion Guardian, Esther Addley and Yasmin Morgan-Griffiths (13/9/12)
- Why are property prices in London so much higher than in other parts of the UK?
- Why is this property being sold privately not publicly, when selling publicly typically gains a higher price?
- How would an individual place a value on this property?
- What is consumer surplus and how would an individual calculate it?
- Could this record price for the property have a positive or adverse effect on property prices in other parts of London?
- Why is mortgage rationing unlikely to be a concern for this property!
The housing market is crucial in any economy, as it provides so many jobs in related industries. It is frequently a good signal of how buoyant the economy is. With recession in the UK, mortgage rationing continuing and many homeowners having to find 20% deposits to buy a house, many would expect the housing market to be showing signs of trouble.
And to some extent this is the case. Studies on house prices have clearly shown how unpredictable this market is and prices remain 0.7% below what they were a year ago. However, in August house prices increased, recording their biggest rise in two and a half years, at 1.3%. For many, this rise was a surprise, but came as a welcome relief following the declines in previous months. Despite this rise, analysts have suggested that this trend is unlikely to continue throughout the rest of the year, as the demand for houses remains weak. Robert Gardner, the Chief Economist at Nationwide said:
“Given the difficult economic backdrop, the extent of the rebound in August is a little surprising. However, we should never read too much into one month’s data, especially since monthly price changes have been impacted by a number of one-off factors this year, such as the ending of the stamp duty holiday for first time buyers’.
So, what is behind this upward trend? Nationwide’s Chief Economist says that it could be explained by a resilient labour market, where employment has risen in recent months, despite the recession. The labour market undoubtedly has a big effect on the housing market, as mortgages do take up so a large percentage of take-home pay.
However, another key factor that affects house prices is the availability of mortgages. The Bank of England and Treasury launched the Funding for Lending Scheme at the beginning of August in a bid to make mortgages cheaper and more easily available. However, analysts suggest that the scheme is yet to have an effect. Furthermore, until deposit requirements are eased, that first step on the property ladder will remain elusive for many people. Mortgage approvals did increase slightly in July, but still remain a major barrier for the housing market to really boom.
The following articles consider this ‘surprising’ rise in house prices and the factors behind it.
House prices in ‘surprising’ jump, Nationwide says BBC News (31/8/12)
UK house prices record surprise increase Financial Times, Tanya Powley (31/8/12)
Surprise house price rise in August not indicative of market, says Nationwide The Telegraph, Emma Wall (31/8/12)
House prices in surprise rebound Independent, Vicky Shaw (31/8/12)
House prices continue to hold The Economic Voice, Jeff Taylor (31/8/12)
Mortgage approvals still subdued, Bank of England says BBC News (30/8/12)
Banks are pulling back from property – expect prices to fall Money Week, Matthew Partridge (31/8/12)
UK house prices up, as London continues surge Share Cast, Michael Miller (29/8/12)
Lending to Individuals Bank of England 2012
House Price Index Land Registry 2012
UK house prices (links) Economics Network
- Use a supply and demand diagram to analyse recent trends in the housing market.
- Why is the Bank of England’s lending scheme not having the expected impact on the housing market?
- To what extent do you think the state of the housing market depends on mortgage rationing? Which other factors are likely to affect the housing market?
- In the article from the Economic Voice, the author says that house prices holding as they are is a surprise, because of relatively high inflation and the fact that wages are not keeping pace. Explain the economic thinking behind this view.
- The Chief Economist at Nationwide has said that the future of the housing market depends heavily on what happens to the labour market. Why is this the case?
- Why have mortgages been rationed and minimum deposit requirements been increased?
- Why is the housing market so important for the economy?
The Office for Budget Responsibility has said that the UK Treasury will face a shortfall of £13bn in motoring taxes within a decade. Although car usage continues to rise putting increasing pressure on the road infrastructure, the greener and more fuel efficient cars being produced are driving down the tax revenues generated from motoring.
A report by the IFS has put forward the case for replacing the existing system of taxes on cars and fuel by a new road charging system. If no such change occurs, the IFS has forecast that with more electric cars and hence lower revenues raised from fuel and vehicle excise duties, the shortfall facing the Treasury would require an increase in fuel duty of some 50%. Instead of this, the solution could be to charge individuals for every mile of road they use, with the ‘price’ varying depending on the degree of congestion. For example, at peak times the price would be higher, where as for those in the countryside where roads are traditionally much quieter, charges would be lower. The IFS said:
‘Such a move would generate substantial economic efficiency gains from reduced congestion, reduce the tax levied on the majority of miles driven, leave many (particularly rural) motorists better off, and provide a stable long-term footing for motoring taxes without necessarily raising net additional revenue from drivers.’
Government policy across the world has been increasingly focused on climate change, with targets for emissions reductions being somewhat ambitious. However, many car manufactures who were told to reduce emissions significantly are on the way to meeting these targets and this success is a key factor contributing towards this new road ‘crisis’ that could soon be facing the government. The following articles consider the possibility of a road charging scheme.
The road ahead for motoring taxes? Institute of Fiscal Studies (link to full report at the bottom of the page) (May 2012)
Compelling case for UK road charging, IFS study says BBC News (15/5/12)
Fears tax shortfall may lead to road tolls Sky News (15/5/12)
Who’s going to pay to update Britain’s infrastructure? Guardian Business Blog (15/5/12)
Motoring taxes: a future headache for the Chancellor Channel 4 News (15/5/12)
For whom the toll bills – less traffic hurts M6 toll road owner Guardian, Ian Griffiths and Dan Milmo (14/5/12)
Charge motorists per mile, says IFS Independent, Nigel Morris (15/5/12)
Green cars to drive down tax receipts Financial Times, Mark Odell and John Reed (15/5/12)
- Illustrate the effect of a tax being imposed on petrol. What happens to the equilibrium price and quantity?
- Despite fuel duty pushing up the price of petrol, why has there been such a small decline in the quantity of petrol individuals use?
- Evaluate the case for and against a road charging scheme.
- Why are tax revenues from motoring expected to decline over the next decade?
- Climate change has become an increasingly important focus of government policy. To what extent is the current road ‘crisis’ a positive sign that policies to tackle climate change are working?
- If a road charging scheme went ahead and prices were varied depending on traffic, time etc, what name would you give to this strategy?
- Why would it be possible to charge a higher price at peak times and a lower price for cars using country roads?
- Is there an argument for privatising the road network? Is it even possible?