A row erupted in mid-October between Tesco, the UK’s biggest supermarket, and Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch company. Unilever is the world’s largest consumer goods manufacturer with many well-known brands, including home care products, personal care products and food and drink. Unilever, which manufactures many of its products abroad and uses many ingredients from abroad in those manufactured in the UK, wanted to charge supermarkets 10% more for its products. It blamed the 16% fall in the value of sterling since the referendum in June (see the blog Sterling’s slide).
Tesco refused to pay the increase and so Unilever halted deliveries of over 200 items. As a result, several major brands became unavailable on the Tesco website. The dispute was dubbed ‘Marmitegate’, after one of Unilever’s products.
This is a classic case of power on both sides of the market: a powerful oligopolist, Unilever, facing a powerful oligopsonist, Tesco. With rising costs for Unilever resulting from the falling pound, either Unilever had to absorb the costs, or Tesco had to be prepared to pay the higher prices demanded by Unilever, passing some or all of them onto customers, or there had to be a compromise, with the prices Tesco pays to Unilever rising, but by less than 10%. A compromise was indeed reached on 13 October, with different price increases for each of Unilever’s products depending on how much of the costs are in foreign currencies. Precise details of the deal remained secret.
An interesting dynamic in the dispute was that Tesco and Unilever were acting as ‘champions’ for retailers and suppliers respectively. Other supermarkets were also facing price rises by Unilever. Their reactions were likely to depend on what Tesco did. Similarly, other suppliers were facing rising costs because of the falling pound. Their reactions might depend on how successful Unilever was in passing on its cost increases to retailers.
This example of ‘countervailing power’, or ‘bilateral oligopoly’, helps to illustrate just how much the consumer can gain when a powerful seller is confronted by a powerful buyer. The battle was been likened to that between two ‘gorillas’ of the industry. Its ramifications throughout industry will be interesting.
Podcasts and Webcasts
Tesco-Unilever row: Can unique shop explain ‘Marmitegate’? BBC News, Dougal Shaw (13/10/16)
Tesco, Unilever in Brexit price clash Reuters, David Pollard (13/10/16)
Brexit price-rise warning to shoppers BBC News, Simon Jack (10/10/16)
Tesco in Brexit Pricing Spat With Unilever Wall Street Journal (13/10/16)
Tesco battles Unilever over prices Financial Times on YouTube (14/10/16)
Tesco vs Unilever: Who won? ITV News, Joel Hills (14/10/16)
Tesco removes Marmite and other Unilever brands in price row BBC News (13/10/16)
Marmite Brexit Shortage ‘Just The Beginning’ Of ‘Gorilla’ Grocery Battle As Pound Slumps Huffington Post, Louise Ridley (13/10/16)
Unilever sales increase despite dozens of its brands being removed from Tesco shelves Independent, Ben Chapman (13/10/16)
Tesco-Unilever price row: Why pound value slump has caused Marmite to disappear from shelves Independent, Zlata Rodionova (13/10/16)
Tesco pulls Marmite from online store amid Brexit price row with Unilever The Telegraph, Peter Dominiczak, Steven Swinford and Ashley Armstrong (13/10/16)
Tesco runs short on Marmite and household brands in price row with Unilever The Guardian, Sarah Butler (13/10/16)
Tesco pulls products over plunging pound Financial Times, Mark Vandevelde, Scheherazade Daneshkhu and Paul McClean (13/10/16)
Brexit means…higher prices The Economist, Buttonwood’s notebook (13/10/16)
Tesco, Unilever settle prices row after pound’s Brexit dive Reuters, James Davey and Martinne Geller (14/10/16)
- To what extent can Tesco and Unilever be seen a price leaders of their respective market segments?
- What would you advise other supermarkets to do over their pricing decisions when faced with increased prices from suppliers, and why?
- What would you advise manufacturers of other consumer goods sold in supermarkets to do in the light of the Tesco/Unilever dispute, and why?
- What determines the price elasticity of demand for branded products, such as Marmite, Persil, Dove soap, Hellmann’s mayonnaise, PG Tips tea and Wall’s ice cream?
- What factors will determine in the end just how much extra the consumer pays when supermarkets are faced with demands for higher prices from major suppliers?
- Give some other examples of firms in industries where there is a high degree of countervailing power.
- What are the macroeconomic implications of a depreciating exchange rate?
- If, over the long term, the pound remained 16% below its level in June 2016, would you expect the consumer prices index in the long term to be approximately 16% higher than it would have been if the pound had not depreciated? Explain why or why not.
Record fines have been imposed by the European Commission for the operation of a cartel. Truck makers, Volvo/Renault, Daimler, Iveco and DAF have been fined a total of €2.93bn. The fines were considerably higher than the previous record fine of €1.7bn on banks for rigging the LIBOR rate.
Along with MAN, they were found to have colluded for 14 years over pricing. They also colluded in passing on to customers the costs of compliance with stricter emissions rules. Together these five manufacturers account for some 90% of medium and heavy lorries produced in Europe.
The companies have admitted their involvement in the cartel. If they had not, the fines might have been higher. MAN escaped a fine of €1.2bn as it had revealed the existence of the cartel to the Commission.
A sixth company, Scania, is still in dispute with the Commission over its involvement. Thus the final total of fines could be higher when Scania’s case is settled.
In addition, any person or firm adversely affected by the cartel can seek damages from any of the companies in the national courts of member states. They do not have to prove that there was a cartel.
The Commission hopes that the size of the fine will act as a disincentive for other firms to form a cartel. ‘We have, today, put down a marker by imposing record fines for a serious infringement,’ said Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s competition commissioner.
Also, by being able to exempt a cartel member (MAN in this case) from a fine if it ‘blows the whistle’ to the authorities, it will help to break existing cartels.
There are some other major possible cartels and cases of abuse of market power currently being considered by the Commission. These include Google and whether unfair tax breaks were given to Apple and Amazon by Ireland and Luxembourg respectively.
Price-Fixing Truck Makers Get Record E.U. Fine: $3.2 Billion New York Times, James Kanter (19/7/16)
Truckmakers Get Record $3.23 Billion EU Fine for Cartel Bloomberg, Aoife White (19/6/16)
EU fines truckmakers a record €2.93bn for running 14-year cartel Financial Times, Peter Campbell, Duncan Robinson and Alex Barker (19/7/16)
Truckmakers fined by Brussels for price collusion The Guardian, Sean Farrell (19/7/16)
Europa Press Release
Antitrust: Commission fines truck producers € 2.93 billion for participating in a cartel European Commission (19/7/16)
Competition DG European Commission
- How have the various stakeholders in the truck manufacturing industry been affected by the operation of the cartel?
- What incentive effects are there, (a) for existing cartel members and (b) for firms thinking of forming a cartel, in the fining system used by the European Commission?
- Unlike the USA, the EU cannot jail managers for oligopolistic collusion. Compare the relative effectiveness of large fines and jail sentences in deterring cartels.
- What determines the profit-maximising price(s) for a cartel?
- Apart from the threat of action by the competition authorities, what determines the likely success of a cartel in being able to fix prices?
- Choose two other cases of possible cartels or the abuse of market power being examined by the European Commission. What is the nature of the suspected abuse?
In the following article, Joseph Stiglitz argues that power rather than competition is a better starting point for analysing the working of capitalism. People’s rewards depend less on their marginal product than on their power over labour or capital (or lack of it).
As inequality has widened and concerns about it have grown, the competitive school, viewing individual returns in terms of marginal product, has become increasingly unable to explain how the economy works.
Thus the huge bonuses, often of millions of pounds per year, paid to many CEOs and other senior executives, are more a reflection of their power to set their bonuses, rather than of their contribution to their firms’ profitability. And these excessive rewards are not competed away.
Stiglitz examines how changes in technology and economic structure have led to the increase in power. Firms are more able to erect barriers to entry; network economies give advantages to incumbents; many firms, such as banks, are able to lobby governments to protect their market position; and many governments allow powerful vested interests to remain unchecked in the mistaken belief that market forces will provide the brakes on the accumulation and abuse of power. Monopoly profits persist and there is too little competition to erode them. Inequality deepens.
According to Stiglitz, the rationale for laissez-faire disappears if markets are based on entrenched power and exploitation.
Monopoly’s New Era Chazen Global Insights, Columbia Business School, Joseph Stiglitz (13/5/16)
- What are the barriers to entry that allow rewards for senior executives to grow more rapidly than median wages?
- What part have changes in technology played in the increase in inequality?
- How are the rewards to senior executives determined?
- Provide a critique of Stiglitz’ analysis from the perspective of a proponent of laissez-faire.
- If Stiglitz analysis is correct, what policy implications follow from it?
- How might markets which are currently dominated by big business be made more competitive?
- T0 what extent have the developments outlined by Stiglitz been helped or hindered by globalisation?
When people think about healthcare in the UK they tend to associate it with the NHS. However, there is a £5 billion private healthcare market. Concerns have been expressed about the lack of effective competition in this sector and it has been investigated by the competition authorities over a 5-year period.
Approximately 4 million people in the UK have a private medical insurance policy. The majority of these are paid for by employers, although some people pay directly. Four companies dominate the health insurance market (AXA PPP, Bupa, Pru Health and Aviva) with a combined market share of over 90%.
Health insurance companies purchase healthcare services for their policy holders from private hospitals. The majority of private hospitals in the UK are owned by the following businesses – BMI, HCA, Nuffield, Ramsey and Spire. Some concerns have been expressed about the lack of competition between private hospitals in some areas of the country.
After its initial analysis into the sector, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) referred the case to the Competition Commission (CC) in April 2012 to carry out a full market investigation. This process was then taken over by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) when it replaced the OFT and CC. The final report was published on April 2nd 2014.
One specific region that was identified in this report as having a lack of effective competition was central London for patients with health insurance. In particular it was concluded that:
||The market in central London was heavily concentrated and HCA had a dominant market position – its aggregated share of admissions across 16 specialities (e.g. Oncology, Cardiology, Neurology, Dermatology etc.) was 45% to 55%.
||There were significant barriers to entry including substantial sunk costs. A particular issue for a new entrant or existing business was the problem of securing suitable sites in central London to build new hospitals and in obtaining planning permission. It was pointed out in the report that the market structure in central London had changed very little in the previous 10 years despite a rapidly growing demand for private healthcare.
|| HCA was charging insured patients higher prices for similar treatments than its leading rival – The London Clinic. HCA was also found to be making returns that were in excess of the cost of capital.
One of the key recommendations of the report was that HCA should be forced to sell–off one or two of the hospitals that it owned in central London to increase the level of competition.
Unsurprisingly HCA was very unhappy with the decision and applied to the Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT) for a review of the case. During this review, economists working for HCA found errors with the analysis carried out by the CMA into the pricing of health services for insured customers.
In January 2015 the CAT concluded that the findings and recommendations of the report on insured patients in central London should be overturned and the CMA should reconsider the case. In November 2015 the CMA announced that having reviewed the case it had come to a similar set of conclusions: i.e. there was a lack of effective competition and HCA should be forced to sell off two of its hospitals in London.
HCA still claimed that the pricing analysis was incorrect because it did not fully take into account that HCA treated patients with more complex conditions than TLC and that was why their prices were higher.
On March 22nd 2016 the CMA announced that it had reversed its ruling and HCA would no longer be expected to sell off any of its hospitals. The reason given for this change in recommendation was the appearance of new entrants into the market. For example, Cleveland Clinic a US-based private healthcare provider has purchased a long-term lease on a property in Belgravia, central London. It plans to convert the office space into a private hospital with 2015 beds.
A spokesperson for Bupa commented that:
“The CMA has confirmed again that there isn’t enough competition in central London, with HCA dominating the private hospital market and charging higher prices. We ask the CMA to act now to address this gap.”
It will be interesting to see the impact these new entrants have on the market in the future.
London develops as a global healthcare hub Financial Times Gill Plimmer (31/01/16)
Competition watchdog reverses ruling on private hospitals Financial Times Gill Plimmer, (22/03/16)
CMA’s private healthcare provisional decision on remedies CMA 22/03/16
Competition problems provisionally found in private healthcare CMA 10/11/15
CMA welcomes Court of Appeal verdict in private healthcare case CMA 21/05/15
- Define sunk costs using some real-world examples.
- Why might the existence of sunk costs create a barrier to entry?
- Draw a diagram to illustrate why a profit-maximising business with significant market power might charge higher prices than one in a very competitive environment.
- What is the cost of capital? Explain why returns that are greater than the cost of capital might be evidence that a firm is making excessive profits.
- Draw a diagram to illustrate the impact of new entrants in a market.
Recent reports in the media have included headlines such as “Sexist surcharge” and “Pink premium?” Various claims have been made that women pay significantly higher prices for similar products than men.
The Times newspaper recently published the results from an investigation it carried out on the prices of hundreds of similar products that were marketed at both men and women. The study found that those products marketed at women cost 37% more on average than similar versions that were marketed at men. Examples included:
||Disposable razors: Tesco priced a packet of five of its own-brand disposable razors for women at £1. The key characteristic that targeted the razors at female customers was the colour – they were pink. For the same price, a packet targeted at male customers (i.e. they were blue) contained 10 disposable razors.
||Ballpoint pens: Staples priced a packet of five pastel-coloured Bic pens marketed ‘for her’ at £2.99. A packet of five Bic pens that were not in the ‘for her’ range (i.e. they had transparent barrels) were priced at £1.98.
||Scooters: Argos increased the price of a child’s scooter by £5 if it was pink instead of blue.
Maria Miller, the chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, stated that:
“It is unacceptable that women face higher costs for the same product just because they are targeted at women. Retailers have got to explain why they do this.”
A more detailed study carried out by New York City’s Department of Consumer Affairs was published in December 2015. Average prices were collected for 794 individual items across 5 different industries. The key findings were that products marketed at women were
||7 per cent more for toys and accessories
||4 per cent more for children’s clothing
||8 per cent more for adult clothing
||13 per cent more for personal care products
||8 per cent more for health products
Interestingly whereas the investigation in the UK only found examples of women paying higher prices than men, the New York study found some goods where the price was higher for men.
Reports in the media have claimed that this is clear evidence of price discrimination. Although this is likely to be true, it is impossible to say for certain without more detailed information on costs.
For example, when referring to the higher price for the razors marketed at women in the UK study, Richard Hyman, an analyst at RAH Advisory, stated that:
“the packaging will be different and they will sell fewer so it could be to do with the volume”
If economies of scale and the different costs of packaging can fully account for the difference in prices between the razors then it is not an example of price discrimination.
The sexist surcharge – how women get ripped off on the high street The Guardian 19/01/16
Women paying more than men for everyday products The Independent 19/01/16
Price differences for men and women ‘astonishing’ BBC 19/01/16
Pink premium? There are greater problems The Guardian 24/01/16
Being a women costs more than being a man CNBC 23/12/15
- Define price discrimination.
- Outline and explain the three different categories of price discrimination.
- Could a situation where a firms charges all of its customers the same price for a good or service ever be classed as an example of price discrimination?
- A firm with market power may still not be able to successfully implement a policy of price discrimination. Explain why.
- Under what circumstances could price discrimination improve allocative efficiency?