Following concerns about the market power of the Big Six energy suppliers in the UK and high prices for gas and electricity, the industry regulator, Ofgem, referred the industry to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in June 2014. The CMA published its final report in June 2016. This argued that while there was sufficient potential for competition, consumers nevertheless needed further encouragement to switch suppliers. This would strengthen competition in the market.
To encourage switching, the CMA proposed the creation of a database that would include the details of customers who have been on a supplier’s standard variable tariff (SVT) for three or more years. Competitor energy suppliers would have access to this database to offer better deals for these customers.
There had already been calls for price caps to be imposed on suppliers. For example, in the run-up to the 2015 general election, the then Labour leader, Ed Miliband, proposed imposing a price freeze. This was criticised by the Conservatives for being too anti-market, that it would encourage energy companies to raise prices prior to the freeze and that it would be of no benefit in times of falling wholesale energy prices (which was the position in 2015).
Indeed, in its 2016 report, the CMA recommended price caps only for the 16% of people on prepayment meters and these would be variable caps not freezes. This was followed in February 2017, by Ofgem’s announcement that a temporary price cap for such customers would come into effect in April 2017. The level of the cap would vary by meter type and region. It would also be reviewed every six months to reflect changes in costs and remain in place until 2020. There would be no cap on other customers.
But in the run-up to the 2017 election, the Conservatives announced that they would, after all, introduce a price cap on SVTs – 66% of customers are on such tariffs. Before the details were announced, there was much speculation as to what form such a cap would take? It would not be a simple freeze. But there was debate as to whether caps would vary with wholesale costs or whether they would be relative to the company’s lowest tariffs or to those of its rivals.
As it turned out, the proposal was for a cap on standard variable tariffs. It would be set by Ofgem and reviewed every six months. The cap would be based on the cheapest standard variable tariffs in each part of the UK, taking into account the variable costs for transporting energy there. Ofgem will adjust the cap every six months to reflect changes in the wholesale cost of energy.
Articles before details were anniunced
U.K. Energy Industry Faults May’s Election Pledge to Cap Prices Bloomberg, Rakteem Katakey (23/4/17)
Conservatives promise to cap prices in UK energy market Financial Times, Jim Pickard and Nathalie Thomas (23/4/17)
How might an energy price cap work? BBC News, Brian Milligan (24/4/17)
UK government vows strong action to rein in energy companies The Guardian, Adam Vaughan (19/4/17)
Energy bills: what’s the difference between Tory cap and Miliband freeze? The Guardian, Adam Vaughan (23/4/17)
Capping energy prices? Still a bad idea Adam Smith Institute blogs, Sam Dumitriu (25/4/17)
Bulb becomes ‘first’ provider to cut energy prices this year Moneywise (24/4/17)
Experts slam Conservative plans to cap energy bills as ‘clumsy and counterproductive’ The Telegraph, Lauren Davidson (23/4/17)
Capping energy tariffs isn’t a one-way ticket to Venezuelan-style economic ruin Independent, Ben Chu (25/4/17)
Articles after details were anniunced
Conservatives defend plans to cap UK energy bills Financial Times, Jim Pickard and Nathalie Thomas (9/5/17)
What is the energy price cap – and what does it mean for bills? The Telegraph, Jillian Ambrose (9/5/17)
The new energy price cap con? The Telegraph, Jillian Ambrose (9/5/17)
May defends plan to cap ‘rip-off energy bills’ BBC News (9/5/17)
Q&A: The Tory plan to cap energy prices BBC News, Brian Milligan (9/5/17)
Energy prices could still go up under Theresa May’s price cap plans, admits Business Secretary Greg Clark Independent, Rob Merrick (9/5/17)
Tory claims over energy price cap are just hot air The Guardian, Nils Pratley (9/5/17)
Video and audio
UK government energy price cap ‘sheer politics’: Bernstein CNBC, Deepa Venkateswaran and Andrew Sentance (25/4/17)
Energy UK: price cap could backfire Sky News, Lawrence Slade (24/4/17)
Scottish Power: Capping prices ‘damages customers’ BBC News, Keith Anderson (24/4/17)
Tories to pledge energy bill cap BBC News, Michael Fallon (24/4/17)
Tories: Energy cap will protect vulnerable people BBC Today Programme, Business Secretary Greg Clark (9/5/17)
Energy cap: good or bad for consumers? Sky News, Stephen Fitzpatrick and James Kirkup (9/5/17)
- What scope is there for tacit collusion between the Big Six energy suppliers?
- What is meant by the RPI–X price cap? How does it differ from proposals being considered by the government?
- Why are people often reluctant to switch energy supplier?
- How could people be encouraged to switch supplier?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of imposing a price cap for SVTs (a) relative to costs; (b) relative to lower-priced tariffs?
- Comment on Centrica’s chief executive officer Iain Conn’s statement that “price regulation will result in reduced competition and choice, and potentially impact customer service”.
- Comment on the statement by Lawrence Slade, chief executive officer of Energy UK, that intervention would create “huge uncertainty around government intentions, potentially putting at risk the billions in investment and jobs needed to renew our energy system”.
- Would an announcement of the introduction of a price cap in the near future necessarily encourage energy companies to raise their price now?
In many cases, we simply leave the market to do what it does best – equate demand with supply and from this we get an equilibrium price and the optimal quantity. But, what happens if either the price or quantity is ‘incorrect’? What happens if the market fails to deliver an efficient outcome? In this case, we look to governments to intervene and ‘correct’ the market and such intervention can take place on the demand and/or supply-side. One area where it is generally felt that government intervention is needed is drugs and the trafficking of them across borders.
There are many ways in which governments have tried to tackle the problem of drug usage. The issue is that drugs are bad for individuals, for the community, society and the economy. Too much is produced and consumed and hence we have a classic case of market failure and this justifies government intervention.
But, how should governments intervene? With a substance such as drugs, we have an inelastic demand with resepect to price – any increase in price leads to only a small decrease in quantity. So any policy implemented by governments that attempts to change the market price will have limited effect in restricting demand. With globalisation, drugs can be moved more easily across borders and hence global co-operation is needed to restrict the flow. The article below considers the area of drugs and drug trafficking and looks at some of the policy options open to government.
Narconomics: The business of drug trafficking Houston Chronicle (16/3/16)
- Why does the market fail in the case of drug trafficking?
- Draw the demand curve you would expect for drugs and use this to explain why an increase in price will have limited effect on demand.
- Is there an argument for making drugs legal as a means of raising tax revenue?
- If better educational programmes are introduced about the perils of drug usage, how would this affect the market? Use a demand and supply diagram to help explain your answer.
- Why does globalisation make the solutions to drug trafficking more difficult to implement?
- Could drug usage and drug trafficking and hence the need to invest more money in tackling the problem actually boost an economy’s rate of growth? If so, does this mean that we should encourage drug usage?
In many parts of the world, life in the oceans is dying out. The term ‘dead zones’ is used to describe seas that are devoid of marine life. And these zones are growing in size and number.
It’s not just the decline in fish and other marine species that’s worrying environmentalists and many others; it’s a growth in rubbish. Part of this is caused by natural disasters, such as the 2011 Tsunami in Japan that washed huge amounts of debris into the Pacific Ocean. But much of it is caused by rubbish carried down rivers and into the seas, or rubbish jettisoned from ships. The problem is particularly acute in areas of the oceans where currents circulate the rubbish into huge rubbish dumps. There are two such areas either side of Hawaii in the Pacific. Both are vast.
The first article below tells the tale of Newcastle (Australia) yachtsman Ivan Macfadyen. He completed the 2013 Melbourne to Osaka double handed yacht race earlier this year as skipper of his yacht Funnelweb and then went on to bring the yacht home to Australia via America and race the famous Trans-Pac Yacht Race from Los Angeles to Hawaii along the way.
Exactly 10 years before, when [he] had sailed exactly the same course from Melbourne to Osaka, all he’d had to do to catch a fish from the ocean between Brisbane and Japan was throw out a baited line.
“There was not one of the 28 days on that portion of the trip when we didn’t catch a good-sized fish to cook up and eat with some rice,” Macfadyen recalled. But this time, on that whole long leg of sea journey, the total catch was two. No fish. No birds. Hardly a sign of life at all.
After reaching Osaka in Japan, they sailed on to San Francisco via Hawaii.
“After we left Japan, it felt as if the ocean itself was dead,” Macfadyen said. “We hardly saw any living things. We saw one whale, sort of rolling helplessly on the surface with what looked like a big tumour on its head. It was pretty sickening.”
“I’ve done a lot of miles on the ocean in my life and I’m used to seeing turtles, dolphins, sharks and big flurries of feeding birds. But this time, for 3000 nautical miles there was nothing alive to be seen.”
In place of the missing life was garbage in astounding volumes.
As economists, you should readily understand that here we have a case of over-exploited common resources – a Tragedy of the Commons of epic proportions. One ship’s rubbish may make a tiny difference, but when the cost of dumping is near zero and when the oceans are not policed, what is rational for a single ship becomes a disaster when repeated tens of thousands of times by other ships
Again, overfishing is the result of seemingly rational behaviour by crews of individual fishing boats. But as Economics (8th edition) points out on pages 328–30:
Common resources are not owned but are available free of charge to anyone. Examples include the air we breathe and the oceans for fishing. Like public goods, they are non-excludable. For example, fishing boats can take as many fish as they are able from the open seas. There is no ‘owner’ of the fish to stop them. As long as there are plentiful stocks of fish, there is no problem.
But as more people fish the seas, so fish stocks are likely to run down. This is where common resources differ from public goods. There is rivalry. One person’s use of a common resource diminishes the amount available for others. This result is an overuse of common resources. This is why fish stocks in many parts of the world are severely depleted, why virgin forests are disappearing (cut down for timber or firewood), why many roads are so congested and why the atmosphere is becoming so polluted (being used as a common ‘dump’ for emissions). In each case, a resource that is freely available is overused. This has become known as the tragedy of the commons.
… When I use a common resource, I am reducing the amount available for others. I am imposing a cost on other people: an external cost. If I am motivated purely by self-interest, I will not take these external costs into account.
Try doing some research to find out just what has been happening to the state of the oceans in recent years.
The ocean is broken Newcastle Herald (Australia), Greg Ray (18/10/13)
Our Planet Is Exploding With Ocean Dead Zones Business Insider, Dina Spector (26/6/13)
Health of oceans ‘declining fast’ BBC News, Roger Harrabin (3/10/13)
Chaos in the Oceans Huffington Post, Evaggelos Vallianatos (14/10/13)
Ocean Health Suffers from Overfishing, Index Finds Live Science, TechMedia, Douglas Main (16/10/13)
Dead zone (ecology) Wikipedia
Common Fisheries Policy Wikipedia
Reform of the Common Fisheries Policy Fisheries DG, European Commission
Ocean Health Index OHI
- How does a common resource differ from a public good?
- What is the equilibrium use of a common resource? Demonstrate this with a diagram.
- What is the socially efficient use of a common resource such as a fishing ground?
- In what ways have modern ‘industrial’ methods of fishing compounded the problem of the overuse of fishing grounds?
- What criteria, other than social efficiency, could be used to determine the optimal use of a common resource?
- Explain how the Common Fisheries Policy of the EU works. Are there any lessons that can be learned by other groups of countries from the experience of the CFP?
- Are there any ‘good news’ stories about the state of any of the oceans? If so, to what extent are they the result of deliberate human action?
- To what extent is the Internet a common resource?
The environment has been a growing part of government policy for many years. With the Kyoto Protocol and Europe’s carbon trading system, effort has been made to reduce carbon emissions. Part of UK policy to meet its emission’s target requires substantial investment in infrastructure to provide efficient energy.
Details of the government’s Energy Bill sets out plans that will potentially increase average household energy bills by about £100 per annum, although estimates of this vary from about £90 to £170. This money will be used to finance much needed investment in infrastructure that will allow the UK to meet its carbon emissions target. With this extra cost on bills, energy companies will increase bring in something like £7.6bn. The benefit of this higher cost is that investment today will lead to lower energy bills tomorrow. Essentially, we’re looking at a short-term cost for a long-term gain.
The Energy Bill also delayed setting a carbon emission target until 2016. Crucially, this will come after the next election. Environmentalists have naturally criticised this omission. John Sauven of Greenpeace said:
’By failing to agree to any carbon target for the power sector until after the next election, David Cameron has allowed a militant tendency within his own ranks to derail the Energy Bill … It’s a blatant assault on the greening of the UK economy that leaves consumers vulnerable to rising gas prices, and sends billions of pounds of clean-tech investment to our economic rivals.’
One further problem that this lack of a target creates is uncertainty. The energy sector requires significant investment and in order to be encouraged to invest, firms need assurances. Without knowing the target and hence facing a degree of uncertainty, firms may be less likely to invest in building new power plants. And this investment is crucial. The Government has committed to replacing most coal-fired power stations across Britain with low carbon technology at a cost of hundreds of billions of pounds. However, the Chancellor has said “he would not allow saving the planet to come at the cost of ‘putting our country out of business.’”
When this Energy Bill is published, it is claimed that £110bn of spending on different aspects of the National Grid will occur. The suggestion is that this will generate a further 250,000 jobs by 2030 and will be a big step in the right direction towards creating an economy that is more reliant on clean energy.
The following articles consider the wide range of issues surrounding the Energy Bill.
’It’s reasonable to hike energy bills to build wind farms’ says Tim Yeo The Telegraph, Rowena Mason (23/11/12)
Energy Bill to increase prices to fund cleaner fuel BBC News (23/11/12)
Energy deal means bills will rise to pay for green power The Guardian, Juliette Jowit and Fiona Harvey (23/11/12)
Energy Bill Q&A BBC News (23/11/12)
Energy bills to rise by £170 a year to fund wind farms Independent, Andrew Woodcock and Emily Beament (23/11/12)
Energy deal – but no target to cut Britain’s carbon emissions Independent, Nigel Morris (22/11/12)
Davey defends contentious energy agreement Financial Times, Jim Pickard, Pilita Clark and Hannah Kuchler (23/11/12)
Energy bill lacks emissions target Channel 4 News (23/11/12)
- Why does the environment require so much government intervention? Think about the different ways in which the environment as a market fails.
- If household bills rise, is there likely to be an income and substitution effect between consumption of ‘energy’ and other goods? Which direction will each effect move in and which do you think would be the largest?
- Why is uncertainty such a deterrent for investment? Why does a lack of a carbon emissions target represent uncertainty?
- The higher cost of bills today may enable future bills to fall. Why is this? For a household, explain why discount factors could be important here.
- Why do some argue that the extra cost to households set out by the government are likely to under-estimate the actual increase households will face?
- Is the Chancellor right to say that he will not put our country out of business to save the planet?
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?