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?
Last year, we felt the cost of the cold weather and whilst we haven’t seen such low temperatures this year, gas shortages are also emerging. Across Eastern Europe, temperatures have fallen well below -30ºC and so demand for gas has unsurprisingly increased.
Thanks to these low temperatures, Russian gas supplies are running low and several countries have seen their deliveries of gas fall. However, the Russian gas monopoly, Gazprom has said that supplies have not been cut and that it has been exporting more gas during these cold times. The blame, according to Alexander Medvedev (the Deputy CEO of Gazprom), lies with the Ukraine taking gas at a pace significantly above contracted levels. The following articles consider this issue.
Russia, Ukraine argue over gas as EU reports shortage Reuters (2/2/12)
Freezing Europe hit by Russian gas shortage BBC News (4/2/12)
Gazprom says ‘Perplexed’ by EU supply drop as Ukraine takes gas Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Anna Shiryaevskaya (3/2/12)
Gazprom cuts gas supplies amid cold snap Financial Times, Guy Chazan (3/2/12)
Gazprom ‘unable to pump extra gas to Europe’ Associated Press (4/2/12)
- Using a demand and supply diagram, illustrate what we would expect to see with a gas shortage.
- What has been the cause of this current gas shortage? Use a diagram to illustrate the causes.
- What would you expect to happen to prices following this gas shortage?
- Gazprom is said to be a monopoly: what are the characteristics of a monopoly?
- As there are other gas suppliers, how can Gazprom be said to be a monopolist?
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.
The UK section of the North Sea used to be sufficient to supply all of the country’s gas requirements, but now some has to be imported from countries such as Norway. With the cold weather, the usage of gas has increased to record levels and there are now concerns for future supplies, especially if the cold weather returns.
However, the National Grid has said that there isn’t a problem, despite a glitch with a Norwegian gas supply. Gas supplies from various sources have been increased to deal with this record demand. There have been calls for Britain to build more gas storage facilities and the National Grid did issue ‘gas balancing alerts’, asking power firms and other large industries to cut back on their gas consumption. There are suggestions that even if supplies of gas aren’t a problem at the moment, we could see serious shortages in a few years.
Following growing demand for gas supplies, wholesale prices rose, but they did fall again when supplies were increased. Prices of household bills could be affected in the future, but for now, it’s too soon to tell. However, rising prices could spell further trouble for ours and other economies suffering from extreme weather on top of a financial crisis. Economic recovery could be put in jeopardy.
This fear of gas shortages and security of supply has led environmental and business groups to argue that Britain needs to diversify its energy supplies and become less dependent on foreign exports. This issue fits in with the latest developments in new investment in wind turbines.
Who knew that something as beautiful as snow could cause so much trouble and provide so much economic analysis!
National Grid warns of UK gas shortage Guardian, David Teather (5/1/10)
Is the United Kingdom facing a natural gas shortage The Oil Drum (9/1/10)
Wind farms: Generating power and jobs? BBC News (8/1/10)
Gas rationing in -22C Britain increases fears of energy crisis Mail Online, Martina Lees (8/1/10)
Gas usage hits new high in UK cold snap BBC News (8/1/10)
Energy fears over gas and kerosene shortages Scotsman (6/1/10)
Gas shortages highlights firms’ exposure to energy security risks Business Green, Tom Young (8/1/10)
Uh-oh: the return of $3 gas CNN Money, Paul R La Monica (7/1/10)
Natural gas prices seen rising with winter shortages Global Times, Chen Xiaomin (4/1/10)
Gas demand hits record on Thursday Reuters (8/1/10)
Gas demand in UK hits another highBBC News, Hugh Pym (7/1/10)
- Illustrate the effects in the gas market of increasing demand and the resulting shortages. Then show the effects of increasing the supplies of gas. How is equilibrium achieved when there is a shortage in the market?
- Why did energy prices increase and then fall?
- To what extent should the government have been able to forecast this higher demand? Should better contingency plans have been in place?
- The article from CNN Money looks at the effect of rising prices of oil and energy and how this is likely to affect consumer spending. Why could rising prices of these commodities adversely affect economic recovery?
- What is an ‘interruptible contract’ and how useful have they been in dealing with these gas shortages?
- Why has this gas shortage presented environmental groups with an opportunity to promote renewable energy supplies? Think about economic interdependence.
- What alternatives are there to our current gas sources? Are they realistic alternatives?