The suffering inflicted on the Ukrainian people by the Russian invasion is immense. But, at a much lower level, the war will also inflict costs on people in countries around the world. There will be significant costs to households in the form of even higher energy and food price inflation and a possible economic slowdown. The reactions of governments and central banks could put a further squeeze on living standards. Stock markets could fall further and investment could decline as firms lose confidence.
Russia is the world’s second largest oil supplier and any disruption to supplies will drive up the price of oil significantly. Ahead of the invasion, oil prices were rising. At the beginning of February, Brent crude was around $90 per barrel. With the invasion, it rose above $100 per barrel.
Russia is also a major producer of natural gas. The EU is particularly dependent on Russia, which supplies 40% of its natural gas. With Germany halting approval of the major new gas pipeline under the Baltic from Russia to Germany, Nord Stream 2, the price of gas has rocketed. On the day of the invasion, European gas prices rose by over 50%.
Nevertheless, with the USA deciding not to extend sanctions to Russia’s energy sector, the price of gas fell back by 32% the next day. It remains to be seen just how much the supplies of oil and gas from Russia will be disrupted over the coming weeks.
Both Russia and Ukraine are major suppliers of wheat and maize, between them responsible for 14% of global wheat production and 30% of global wheat exports. A significant rise in the price of wheat and other grains will exacerbate the current rise in food price inflation.
Russia is also a significant supplier of metals, such as copper, platinum, aluminium and nickel, which are used in a wide variety of products. A rise in their price has begun and will further add to inflationary pressures and supply-chain problems which have followed the pandemic.
The effect of these supply shocks can be illustrated in a simple aggregate demand and supply diagram (see Figure 1), which shows a representative economy that imports energy, grain and other resources. Aggregate demand and short-run aggregate supply are initially given by AD0 and SRAS0. Equilibrium is at point a, with real national income (real GDP) of Y0 and a price index of P0.
The supply shock shifts short-run aggregate supply to SRAS1. Equilibrium moves to point b. The price index rises to P1 and real national income falls to Y1. If it is a ‘one-off’ cost increase, then the price index will settle at the new higher level and GDP at the new lower level provided that real aggregate demand remains the same. Inflation will be temporary. If, however, the SRAS curve continues to shift upwards to the left, then cost-push inflation will continue.
These supply-side shocks make the resulting inflation hard for policymakers to deal with. When the problem lies on the demand side, where the inflation is accompanied by an unsustainable boom, a contractionary fiscal and monetary policy can stabilise the economy and reduce inflation. But the inflationary problem today is not demand-pull inflation; it’s cost-push inflation. Disruptions to supply are both driving up prices and causing an economic slowdown – a situation of ‘stagflation’, or even an inflationary recession.
An expansionary policy, such as increasing bond purchases (quantitative easing) or increasing government spending, may help to avoid recession (at least temporarily), but will only exacerbate inflation. In Figure 2, aggregate demand shifts to AD2. Equilibrium moves to point c. Real GDP returns to Y0 (at least temporarily) but the price level rises further, to P2. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the diagram.)
A contractionary policy, such as raising interest rates or taxes, may help to reduce inflation but will make the slowdown worse and could lead to recession. In the diagram, aggregate demand shifts to AD3. Equilibrium moves to point d. The price level returns to P0 (at least temporarily) but real income falls further, to Y3.
In other words, you cannot tackle both the slowdown/recession and the inflation simultaneously by the use of demand-side policy. One requires an expansionary fiscal and/or monetary policy; the other requires fiscal and/or monetary tightening.
Then there are other likely economic stresses. If NATO countries respond by increasing defence expenditure, this will put further strain on public finances.
Sentiment is a key driver of the economy and prices. Expectations tend to be self-fulfilling. So if the war in Ukraine undermines confidence in stock markets and the real economy and further raises inflationary expectations, this pessimistic mood will tend in itself to drive down share prices, drive up inflation and drive down investment and economic growth.
- How will Russia’s invasion of Ukraine hit the global economy?
Financial Times, Chris Giles, Jonathan Wheatley and Valentina Romei (25/2/22)
- Ukraine conflict raises the possibility of stagflation
Financial Times, The Editorial Board (25/2/22)
- Five ways the Ukraine war could push up prices
BBC News, Laura Jones (5/3/22)
- Jason Furman cautions against reading too much into the initial market reactions to Russia’s invasion
interest.co.nz, Jason Furman (26/2/22)
- Putin’s war promises to crush the global economy with inflation and much slower growth
Market Watch, Nouriel Roubini (25/2/22)
- Roubini: 6 Financial, Economic Risks of Russia-Ukraine War
ThinkAdvisor, Janet Levaux (25/2/22)
- Fed tightening plans now contending with war, possible oil shock
Reuters, Howard Schneider and Jonnelle Marte (24/2/22)
- The invasion of Ukraine changed everything for Wall Street
CNN, Julia Horowitz (27/2/22)
- Why the Russian invasion will have huge economic consequences for American families
CNN, Matt Egan (24/2/22)
- European gas prices soar and oil tops $105 after Russia attacks Ukraine
Financial Times, Neil Hume, Emiko Terazono and Tom Wilson (24/2/22)
- Five essential commodities that will be hit by war in Ukraine
The Conversation, Sarah Schiffling and Nikolaos Valantasis Kanellos (24/2/22)
- Ukraine: ‘I’m surprised the oil price hasn’t hit US$130 a barrel yet’ – energy trading expert Q&A
The Conversation, Adi Imsirovic (25/2/22)
- Ukraine crisis: Warning UK energy bills could top £3,000 a year
BBC News, Michael Race (25/2/22)
- Putin’s energy shock: The economic realities of invasion
BBC News, Faisal Islam (25/2/22)
- Fears of UK food and fuel prices rising due to war
BBC News, Oliver Smith & Michael Race (26/2/22)
- Ukraine conflict: What is Swift and why is banning Russia so significant?
BBC News, Russell Hotten (27/2/22)
- Ukraine conflict: How reliant is Europe on Russia for oil and gas?
BBC News, Jake Horton & Daniele Palumbo (25/2/22)
- Ukraine crisis complicates ECB’s path to higher rates
Reuters, Francesco Canepa and Balazs Koranyi (24/2/22)
- Russia and the West are moving towards all out economic war
Al Jazeera, Maximilian Hess (24/2/22)
- If there is a negative supply shock, what will determine the size of the resulting increase in the price level and the rate of inflation over the next one or two years?
- How may expectations affect (a) the size of the increase in the price level; (b) future prices of gas and oil?
- Why did stock markets rise on the day after the invasion of Ukraine?
- Argue the case for and against relaxing monetary policy and delaying tax rises in the light of the economic consequences of the war in Ukraine.
The global battle for fuel is expected to peak this winter. The combination of rising demand and a tightening of supply has sparked concerns of shortages in the market. Some people are worried about another ‘winter of discontent’. Gas prices have risen fivefold in Europe as a whole.
In the UK, consumers are likely to find that the natural gas needed to heat their homes this October will cost at least five times more than it did a year ago. This surge in wholesale gas prices has seen several UK energy suppliers stop trading as they are unable to make a profit. This is because of an energy price cap for some consumers and various fixed price deals they had signed with their customers.
There are thus fears of an energy crisis in the UK, especially if there is a cold winter. There are even warnings that during a cold snap, gas supply to various energy-intensive firms may be cut off. This comes at a time when some of these industries are struggling to make a profit.
Demand and supply
The current situation is a combination of long- and short-term factors. In spring 2020, the demand for gas actually decreased due to the pandemic. This resulted in low gas prices, reduced UK production and delayed maintenance work and investment along global supply chains. However, since early 2021, consumer demand for gas has soared. First, there was an increased demand due to the Artic weather conditions last winter. This was then followed by heatwaves in the USA and Europe over the summer, which saw an increase in the use of air conditioning units. With the increased demand combined with calm weather conditions, wind turbines couldn’t supply enough power to meet demand.
There has also been a longer-term impact on demand throughout the industry due to the move to cleaner energy. The transitioning to wind and solar has seen a medium-term increase in the demand for gas. There is also a long-term impact of the target for net zero economies in the UK and Europe. This has hindered investors’ willingness to invest in developing supplies of fossil fuels due the fact they could become obsolete over the next few decades.
Nations have also been unable to build up enough supplies for winter. This is partly due to Europe’s domestic gas stocks having declined by 30% per cent in the past decade. This heightened situation is leading to concerns that there will be black-outs or cut-offs in gas this winter.
Importation of gas
A concern for the UK is that it has scant storage facilities with no long-term storage. The UK currently has very modest amounts of storage – less than 6% of annual demand and some five times less than the average in the rest of Europe. It has been increasingly operating a ‘just-in-time model’, which is more affected by short-term price fluctuations in the wholesale gas market. With wind power generation remaining lower than average during summer 2021, more gas than usual has been used to generate electricity, leaving less gas to go into storage.
However, some argue that the problem is not just the UK’s physical supply of gas but demand for gas from elsewhere. Around half of the UK’s supply comes from its own production sites, while the rest is piped in from Europe or shipped in as liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the USA, Qatar and Russia. In 2019, the UK imported almost 20% of its gas through LNG shipments. However, Asian gas demand has grown rapidly, expanding by 50% over the past decade. This has meant that LNG has now become much harder to secure.
The issue is the price the UK has to pay to continue receiving these supplies. Some in the gas industry believe the price surge is only temporary, caused by economic disruptions, while many others say it highlights a structural weakness in a continent that has become too reliant on imported gas. It can be argued that the gas crisis has highlighted the lack of a coherent strategy to manage the gas industry as the UK transitions to a net zero economy. The lack of any industry investment in new capacity suggests that there is currently no business case for new long-term storage in the UK, especially as gas demand is expected to continue falling over the longer term.
Impact on consumers and industry
Gas prices for suppliers have increased fivefold over the past year. Therefore, many companies face a considerable rise in their bills. MSome may need to reduce or pause production – or even cease trading – which could cause job losses. Alternatively, they could pass on their increased costs to customers by charging them higher prices. Although energy-intensive industries are particularly exposed, every company that has to pay energy bills will be affected. Due to the growing concerns about the security of winter gas supplies those industries reliant on gas, such as the fertiliser industry, are restricting production, threatening various supply chains.
Most big domestic gas suppliers buy their gas months in advance, meaning they will most likely pass on the higher price rises they have experienced in the past few months. The increased demand and decreased supply has already meant meant that customers have faced higher prices for their energy. The UK has been badly hit because it’s one of Europe’s biggest users of natural gas – 85% of homes use gas central heating – and it also generates a third of the country’s electricity.
The rising bills are particularly an issue for those customers on a variable tariff. About 15 million households have seen their energy bills rise by 12% since the beginning of October due to the rise in the government’s energy price cap calculated by the regulator, Ofgem. A major concern is that this increase in bills comes at a time when the need to use more heating and lighting is approaching. It also coincides with other price rises hitting family budgets and the withdrawal of COVID support schemes.
Government intervention – maximum pricing
If the government feels that the equilibrium price in a particular market is too high, it can intervene in the market and set a maximum price. When the government intervenes in this way, it sets a price ceiling on certain basic goods or services and does not permit the price to go above that set limit. A maximum price is normally set for reasons of fairness and to benefit consumers on low incomes. Examples include energy price caps to order to control fuel bills, rent controls in order to improve affordability of housing, a cap on mobile roaming charges within the EU and price capping for regional monopoly water companies.
The energy price cap
Even without the prospect of a colder than normal winter, bills are still increasing. October’s increase in the fuel cap means that many annual household fuel bills will rise by £135 or more. The price cap sets the maximum price that suppliers in England, Wales and Scotland can charge domestic customers on a standard, or default tariff. The cap has come under the spotlight owing to the crisis among suppliers, which has seen eleven firms fold, with more expected.
The regulator Ofgem sets a price cap for domestic energy twice a year. The latest level came into place on 1 October. It is a cap on the price of energy that suppliers can charge. The price cap is based on a broad estimate of how much it costs a supplier to provide gas and electricity services to a customer. The calculation is mainly made up of wholesale energy costs, network costs such as maintaining pipes and wires, policy costs including Government social and environmental schemes, operating costs such as billing and metering services and VAT. Therefore, suppliers can only pass on legitimate costs of supplying energy and cannot charge more than the level of the price cap, although they can charge less. A household’s total bill is still determined by how much gas and electricity is used.
- Those on standard tariffs, with typical household levels of energy use, will see an increase of £139.
- People with prepayment meters, with average energy use, will see an annual increase of £153.
- Households on fixed tariffs will be unaffected. However, those coming to the end of a contract are automatically moved to a default tariff set at the new level.
Ordinarily, customers are able to shop around for cheaper deals, but currently, the high wholesale prices of gas means that cheaper deals are not available.
Despite the cap limiting how much providers can raise prices, the current increase is the biggest (and to the highest amount) since the cap was introduced in January 2019. As providers are scarcely making a profit on gas, there are concerns that a further increase in wholesale prices will cause more suppliers to be forced out of business. Ofgem said that the cap is likely to go up again in April, the next time it is reviewed.
The record prices being paid by suppliers and deficits in gas supply across the world have stoked fears that the energy crisis will get worse. It comes at a time when households are already facing rising bills, while some energy-intensive industries have started to slow production. This has started to dent optimism around the post-pandemic economic recovery.
Historically, UK governments have trusted market mechanisms to deliver UK gas security. However, consumers are having to pay the cost of such an approach. The price cap has meant the UK’s gas bills have until now been typically lower than the EU average. However, the rise in prices comes on top of other economic problems such as labour shortages and increasing food prices, adding up to an unwelcome rise in the cost of living.
- Using a supply and demand diagram, illustrate what has happened in the energy market over the past year.
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of government intervention in a free market?
- Explain why it is necessary for the regulator to intervene in the energy market.
- Using the concept of maximum pricing, illustrate how the price cap works.
The UK energy industry (electricity and gas) is an oligopoly. There are six large suppliers: the ‘Big Six’. These are British Gas (Centrica, UK), EDF Energy (EDF, France), E.ON UK (E.ON, Germany), npower (RWE, Germany), Scottish Power (Iberdrola, Spain) and SSE (SSE Group, UK). The Big Six supply around 73% of the total UK market and around 90% of the domestic market.
Energy suppliers buy wholesale gas and electricity and sell it to customers. The industry has a considerable degree of vertical integration, with the energy suppliers also being involved in both generation and local distribution (long-distance distribution through the familiar pylons is by National Grid). There is also considerable horizontal integration, with energy suppliers supplying both electricity and gas and offering ‘dual-fuel’ deals, whereby customers get a discount by buying both fuels from the same supplier.
Smaller suppliers have complained about substantial barriers to entry in the industry. In particular, they normally have to buy wholesale from one of the Big Six. Lack of transparency concerning their costs and internal transfer prices by the Big Six has led to suspicions that they are charging more to independent suppliers than to themselves.
Under new regulations announced by Ofgem, the industry regulator, the Big Six will have to post the prices at which they will trade wholesale power two years in advance and must trade fairly with independent suppliers or face financial penalties. In addition, ‘a range of measures will make the annual statements of the large companies more robust, useful and accessible.’ According to the Ofgem Press Release:
From 31 March new rules come into force meaning the six largest suppliers and the largest independent generators will have to trade fairly with independent suppliers in the wholesale market, or face financial penalties. The six largest suppliers will also have to publish the price at which they will trade wholesale power up to two years in advance. These prices must be published daily in two one-hour windows, giving independent suppliers and generators the opportunity and products they need to trade and compete effectively.
But will these measures be enough to break down the barriers to entry in the industry and make the market genuinely competitive? The following articles look at the issue.
Boost for small energy firms as Big Six are ordered to trade fairly on wholesale markets or face multi-million pound fines This is Money, Rachel Rickard Straus (26/2/14)
Energy firms told to trade fairly with smaller rivals BBC News, Rachel Fletcher (26/2/14)
Ofgem ramps up scrutiny of Big Six accounts The Telegraph, Denise Roland (26/2/14)
‘Big six’ told to trade fairly – will it make a difference? Channel 4 News, Emma Maxwell (26/2/14)
Energy regulator Ofgem forces trading rules on ‘big six’ suppliers Financial Times, Andy Sharman (26/2/14)
Ofgem tears down barriers to competition to bear down as hard as possible on energy prices Ofgem Press Release (26/2/14)
The energy market explained Energy UK
Energy in the United Kingdom Wikipedia
Big Six Energy Suppliers (UK) Wikipedia
- Describe the structure of the UK energy industry.
- What are the barriers to the entry of new energy suppliers and generators in the UK?
- To what extent is vertical integration in the electricity generation and supply industry in the interests of consumers?
- To what extent is horizontal integration in the electricity and gas markets in the interests of consumers?
- How will requiring the six largest energy suppliers to post their wholesale prices for the next 24 months increase competition in the energy market?
- Is greater transparency about the revenues, costs and profits of energy suppliers likely to make the market more competitive?
- Identify and discuss other measures which Ofgem could introduce to make the energy market more competitive.
The UK economy faces a growing problem of energy supplies as energy demand continues to rise and as old power stations come to the end of their lives. In fact some 10% of the UK’s electricity generation capacity will be shut down this month.
Energy prices have risen substantially over the past few years and are set to rise further. Partly this is the result of rising global gas prices.
In 2012, the response to soaring gas prices was to cut gas’s share of generation from 39.9% per cent to 27.5%. Coal’s share of generation increased from 29.5% to 39.3%, its highest share since 1996 (see The Department of Energy and Climate Change’s Energy trends section 5: electricity). But with old coal-fired power stations closing down and with the need to produce a greater proportion of energy from renewables, this trend cannot continue.
But new renewable sources, such as wind and solar, take a time to construct. New nuclear takes much longer (see the News Item, Going nuclear). And electricity from these low-carbon sources, after taking construction costs into account, is much more expensive to produce than electricity from coal-fired power stations.
So how will the change in balance between demand and supply affect prices and the security of supply in the coming years. Will we all have to get used to paying much more for electricity? Do we increasingly run the risk of the lights going out? The following video explores these issues.
UK may face power shortages as 10% of energy supply is shut down BBC News, Joe Lynam (4/4/13)
Electricity Statistics Department of Energy & Climate Change
Quarterly energy prices Department of Energy & Climate Change
- What factors have led to a rise in electricity prices over the past few years? Distinguish between demand-side and supply-side factors and illustrate your arguments with a diagram.
- Are there likely to be power cuts in the coming years as a result of demand exceeding supply?
- What determines the price elasticity of demand for electricity?
- What measures can governments adopt to influence the demand for electricity? Will these affect the position and/or slope of the demand curve?
- Why have electricity prices fallen in the USA? Could the UK experience falling electricity prices for similar reasons in a few years’ time?
- In what ways could the government take into account the externalities from power generation and consumption in its policies towards the energy sector?
Centrica, owners of British Gas, has warned that electricity and gas prices in the UK are set to rise in the autumn. Centrica blames this on the expected rise in the costs of wholesale gas and other non-energy inputs.
One of the other ‘big six’ energy suppliers, E.On, has responded by saying that it will not raise energy prices this year. Whether it will raise prices after 1 Jan next year remains to be seen.
Last autumn, household energy prices rose substantially: between 15.4% and 18% for gas and between 4.5% and 16% for electricity. This spring, in response to lower wholesale energy prices, suppliers cut prices for either electricity or gas (but not both) by around 5%.
The government and various pressure groups are encouraging consumers to use price comparison sites to switch to a cheaper supplier. The problem with this is that supplier A may be cheaper than supplier B one month, but B cheaper than A the next. Nevertheless, switching does impose some degree of additional competitive pressure on suppliers.
More powerful pressure could be applied by ‘collective switching’. This is where a lot of people switch via an intermediary company, which sources a deal from an energy supplier. This collective buying is a form of countervailing power to offset the oligopoly power of the suppliers. Such schemes are being encouraged by the Energy Minister, Ed Davey.
The other approach, apart from doing nothing, is for Ofgem, the energy regulator, to impose tough conditions on pricing. But at present, Ofgem’s approach has been to try to make the market more competitive (see also), rather than regulating prices.
British Gas owner Centrica warns of higher energy bills BBC News (11/5/12)
E.ON to keep residential energy prices unchanged in 2012 Reuters, Adveith Nair (14/5/12)
E.ON promises to hold energy prices for 5million customers in 2012 This is Money, Tara Evans (14/5/12)
British Gas owner Centrica feels cold blast from critics ShareCast, John Harrington (11/5/12)
Gas and electricity price battle lines drawn BBC News (14/5/12)
Taking on the energy giants: The co-operative insurgency gains ground Left Foot Forward, Daniel Elton (11/5/12)
Group Energy Buying hits the UK Headlines Spend Matters UK/Europe, Peter Smith (11/5/12)
Think tank calls for competition to break Big Six rip-off Energy Live News, Tom Gibson (30/4/12)
Collective switching will not fix the UK’s broken energy market Guardian, Reg Platt (27/4/12)
Make your own small switch for cheaper energy The Telegraph, Rosie Murray-West (14/5/12)
- What are the barriers to entry in the electricity supply market?
- How competitive is the retail energy market at present?
- To what extent do price comparison sites put pressure on energy companies to reeduce prices or limit price increases?
- What scope is there for collective buying of gas and electricity from the six energy suppliers by (a) households; (b) firms?
- Assess Ofgem’s package of proposals for a simpler and more competitive energy market.