Families in the UK seemed to have been squeezed in all areas. With incomes flat, inflation rising, petrol and bills high, there seems to be a never ending cycle of price rises without the corresponding increase in incomes. This has been confirmed by the latest figures released from the big six energy companies, whose profit margins have risen from £15 per customer in June to £125 per customer per year. This is assuming that prices remain the same for the coming year.
The regulator, Ofgem has said that profit margins will fall by next year and that they are ensuring that price comparisons between the big energy companies become much easier to allow consumers to shop around. It is a competitive market and yet due to tariffs being so complicated to understand, many consumers are simply unable to determine which company is offering them the best deal. There is certainly not perfect knowledge in this market. Tim Yeo, the Chair of the Energy and Climate Change Committee said the profit margins were:
‘Evidence of absolutely crass behaviour by the energy companies, with a jump in prices announced in the last few months ahead of what will be a winter in which most families face their highest ever electricity and gas bills’
Ofgem will publish proposals later this year with suggestions of how to make the market more competitive. We have already seen in the blog “An energetic escape?” how Ofgem is hoping to reduce the power of the big six by forcing them to auction off some of the electricity they generate. The aim is to free up the market and allow more firms to enter. With the winter fast approaching and based on the past 2 years of snow and cold weather, it is no wonder that households are concerned with finding the best deals in a bid to reduce just one of their bills. The following articles consider this issue.
Energy price hikes see profits soar The Press Association (14/10/11)
Energy suppliers’ profit margins eight times higher, says regulator Ofgem Telegraph (14/10/11)
Energy firms’ profit margins soar, Ofgem says BBC News (14/10/11)
Energy firms’ profits per customer rise 733%, says Ofgem Guardian, Dan Milmo and Lisa Bachelor (14/10/11)
Regulator proposes radical change to energy market Associated Press (14/10/11)
Energy bills face overhaul in first wave of reform Reuters, Paul Hoskins (14/10/11)
Ofgem tells energy companies to simplify tariffs Financial Times, Michael Kavanagh (14/10/11)
You can’t shop around in an oligopoly Financial Times, William Murray (13/10/11)
- What type of market structure best describes the energy market?
- Of the actions being taken by Ofgem, which do you think will have the largest effect on competition in the market?
- Are there any other reforms you think would be beneficial for competition?
- Why is transparency so important in a market?
- What barriers to entry are there for potential competitors in the energy market?
- Why do you think profit margins are so high in this sector?
The UK Supermarket industry is intensely competitive. It’s hard to slot it directly into a specific market structure, but it has many characteristics of an oligopoly – a market dominated by a few firms with intense competition, both price and non-price.
This competititve aspect of the market structure has become even more important as trading conditions become harsher. The latest development sees Sainsbury’s announcing its price promotion – it will match certain prices offered by Tesco and Asda in a bid to attract customers from its rivals.
The supermarket industry has a history of intense price wars and we can only expect them to increase. This is certainly in the interests of customers, as we face ever decreasing prices. It’s a market in which it certainly pays to shop around and compare prices. The following articles consider the latest developments in one of the most competitive markets out there.
Sainsbury’s joins price cut battle The Press Association (9/10/11)
Sainsbury’s follows rivals in price promotion BBC News (9/10/11)
Every basket helps, as supermarkets battle for shoppers Independent, Laura Chesters (9/10/11)
Sainsbury to extend price match trial Financial Times, Andrea Felsted (7/10/11)
Tesco profits grow but UK sales subdued BBC News (5/10/11)
Sainsbury’s to launch price match scheme The Telegraph, Harry Wallop (7/10/11)
Retail bully boys must not protect themselves unfairly Financial Times, Sarah Gordon (7/10/11)
- What are the characteristics of an oligopoly? To what extent do you think that the supermarket industry fits into an oligopolistic market structure?
- Are the price wars being carried out by Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda in the interests of consumers?
- What aspects of non-price competition have been undertaken by the big supermarket contenders? On what factors does the relative success of these pricing strategies depend?
- What might explain the growing presence of fast food companies in the top 100?
- How could the supermarkets use the concept of elasticity in determining the most effective pricing strategy?
- How has the economic climate affected the supermarket industry? Would you expect the impact to be smaller or larger than that in other sectors of the economy? Explain your answer.
Rising costs of cloth and a rise in VAT could mean that clothes prices are set to rise. Does this spell the end of cheap fashion from the likes of Primark and H&M? Or can they absorb the cost increases?
The following articles look at the causes of the rise in costs of clothing and what the cheap fashion chains can do about it.
Primark follows fashion rivals as it warns of rising costs Guardian, David Teather and Zoe Wood (13/9/10)
Primark warns on costs as growth slows Telegraph, James Hall (14/9/10)
Is this the end of cheap clothes era? Price of cotton has rocketed because of floods, Primark warns Mail Online, Sean Poulter (14/9/10)
Fashion chains far from cheerful about future of cheap chic Observer, Zoe Wood, David Teather and Julia Finch (19/9/10)
Commodity prices (including cotton) Index Mundi
Cotton futures BBC Business: Commodities
- Why have cotton prices been rising? Illustrate your arguments with a demand and supply diagram.
- Would you expect a rise in the price of cotton of 45% to lead to a rise in the price of cotton clothes of 45%, or of more than 45% or of less than 45%? Explain.
- For what other reasons are the prices of clothing rising?
- How did the process of globalisation keep the price of clothing down?
- Next’s chief executive, Lord (Simon) Wolfson said that if prices of Next’s clothes go up 8% then the number of units sold will fall by 10%. What is the value of the price elasticity of demand that he is assuming?
- Why is the ‘Fairtrade system so important’?
- “Some retailers have already increased prices but there is more to come. The products most under threat are T-shirts, underwear and socks. More complicated garments such as heavy jeans will be less affected.” Why are the prices of more complicated garments likely to rise by a smaller percentage than those of simple garments?
- What has been happening to the demand for cheap fashion clothing and why? Combine this effect with those of costs on a demand and supply diagram.
- What type of market structure is the market for fashion clothing? What are the implications of this for the profits of retailers?
When we examine industries and markets in economics, one of the key things we look for is how competitive the market is. A question that we ask is, under what type of market structure is this firm operating? To answer this, we will need information on the number of competitors, the products, prices, advertising, profits, efficiency and how the firms are likely to behave in both the short and long run.
A lot of the time firms are independent: their behaviour doesn’t affect the actions of rivals. This is usually because each firm within the industry only has a relatively small market share. If one firm changes the price, or how much it spends on advertising/product development, this won’t have an impact on the market equilibrium.
However, it’s not as easy for an oligopolist, as interdependence is a key characteristic of this market structure. As such, it’s not surprising that firms have a decision to make: should they compete with the other firms and try to maximise our own profits, or should they collude and try to maximise industry profits? Whilst collusion is illegal in many countries, activities such as price fixing do go ahead and it can be difficult to prove, as the ACCC is finding with a petrol price-fixing case in Melbourne. In 49 of the 53 weeks studied, when one of the big petrol stations changed their price, the industry followed these movements exactly.
As competition in a market decreases, it could be a sign that an oligopoly is developing. A few firms are beginning to dominate the market and this could spell trouble for customers. Indeed, in the Australian banking sector, there are concerns that an oligopoly will develop if more competition is not introduced. The Deputy Chairman of the Australian Bankers’ Association said: “We’ve got four major banks that are repricing all their commercial and small business customers’ margins upwards”. Customers may therefore lose out with higher prices and less choice, while the dominant firms see their profits growing.
The market structure under which a firm is operating will have a major impact on its decisions and the outcomes in the market, as shown in the articles below.
ACCC on safe political ground in targeting the Mobil takeover The Australian Business, John Durie and Martin Collins (3/12/09)
Nippon Steel Chairman warns of Australian oligopolies Market Watch, Stephen Bell (10/11/09)
Government’s bank guarantee hurting BOQ: Libby Business Day (2/12/09)
Regulators to scrutinise BHP and Rio’s Australian joint venture Financial Times, William McNamara and Elizabeth Fry (7/12/09)
Crackdown on price fixing draws mixed reaction The Korea Herald (7/12/09)
- What are the main characteristics of an oligopoly?
- Illustrate a cartel that fixes prices and show how a member of this cartel must sell at that price and at a given quantity.
- Some factors make collusion more likely to occur and more likely to succeed. In the Australian banking sector, which factors do you think are allowing price fixing to occur?
- Is the example of petrol price fixing barometric price leadership or dominant firm price leadership? Explain both of these terms and use a diagram, where possible, to illustrate the effects.
- The articles suggest that oligopolies are bad for competition. Explain why this is the case.
- To what extent are oligopolies against the public interest? Use examples from the articles to back up your argument.