The USA has seen many horizontal mergers in recent years. This has turned industries that were once relatively competitive into oligopolies, resulting in lower output and higher prices for consumers.
In Europe, by contrast, many markets are becoming more competitive. The result is that in industries such as mobile phone services, airlines and broadband provision, prices are considerably lower in most European countries than in the USA. As the French economist, Thomas Philippon, states in a Guardian article:
When I landed in Boston in 1999, the United States was the land of free markets. Many goods and services were cheaper than in Europe. Twenty years later, American free markets are becoming a myth.
According to Asher Schechter (see linked article below):
Nearly every American industry has experienced an increase in concentration in the last two decades, to the point where … sectors dominated by two or three firms are not the exception, but the rule.
The result has been an increase in deadweight loss, which, according to research by Bruno Pelligrino, now amounts to some 13.3 per cent of total potential surplus.
Philippon in his research estimates that monopolies and oligopolies “cost the median American household about $300 a month” and deprive “American workers of about $1.25tn of labour income every year”.
One industry considered by the final two linked articles below is housebuilding. Since the US housing and financial crash of 2007–8 many US housebuilders have gone out of business. This has meant that the surviving companies have greater market power. According to Andrew van Dam in the linked Washington Post article below:
They have since built on that advantage, consolidating until many markets are controlled by just a few builders. Their power has exacerbated the country’s affordable-housing crisis, some economists say.
According to research by Luis Quintero and Jacob Cosman:
… this dwindling competition has cost the country approximately 150 000 additional homes a year – all else being equal. With fewer competitors, builders are under less pressure to beat out rival projects, and can time their efforts so that they produce fewer homes while charging higher prices.
Thanks to lobbying of regulators and politicians by businesses and various unfair, but just about legal, practices to exclude rivals, competition policy in the USA has been weak.
In the EU, by contrast, the competition authorities have been more active and tougher. For example, in the airline industry, EU regulators have “encouraged the entry of low-cost competitors by making sure they could get access to takeoff and landing slots.” Politicians from individual EU countries have generally favoured tough EU-wide competition policy to prevent companies from other member states getting an unfair advantage over their own country’s companies.
- What are the possible advantages and disadvantages of oligopoly compared with markets with many competitors?
- How can concentration in an industry be measured?
- Why have US markets become more concentrated?
- Why have markets in the EU generally become more competitive?
- Find out what has happened to levels of concentration in the UK housebuilding market.
- What are the possible effects of Brexit on concentration and competition policy in the UK?
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has imposed a record fine of £84m on the American pharmaceutical manufacturing company Pfizer and of £5.2m on its UK distributor, Flynn Pharma. The CMA found that the companies charged unfair prices to the NHS for phenytoin sodium capsules, the anti-epilepsy drug.
The price was previously regulated, but Pfizer deliberately de-branded the drug in September 2012 and immediately raised the price to Flynn Pharma by between 780% and 1600%, which, in turn, raised the price to the NHS by nearly 2600%. This made the drug many times more expensive than in any other European country.
The cost to the NHS rose from around £2m per year to around £50m in 2013. Although other generic drugs are available, there would be serious health risks to patients forced to switch drugs. The NHS thus had no alternative to paying the higher price.
Pfizer claimed that the drug was loss-making before it was de-branded. However, the CMA calculated that this did not justify the size of the price increase; that the higher price enabled Pfizer to recover all these claimed losses within just two months.
The usual practice is for pharmaceutical companies to charge high prices for new drugs for a period of time to enable them to recover high research and development costs. Later, the drugs become available as generic drugs that other manufacturers can produce. The price then normally falls dramatically.
Phenytoin sodium was invented many years ago and there has been no recent innovation and no significant investment. But, unlike with many other drugs, there has been no switching by the NHS because of possible dangers to patients. This has given Pfizer and its distributor considerable market power. As the CMA states in its press release:
Epilepsy patients who are already taking phenytoin sodium capsules should not usually be switched to other products, including another manufacturer’s version of the product, due to the risk of loss of seizure control which can have serious health consequences. As a result, the NHS had no alternative to paying the increased prices for the drug.
In conclusion, the CMA found that “both companies have held a dominant position in their respective markets for the manufacture and supply of phenytoin sodium capsules and each has abused that dominant position by charging excessive and unfair prices”.
Pfizer fined record £84.2m for overcharging NHS 2600% Independent, Zlata Rodionova (7/12/16)
Pfizer fined record £84.2m over NHS overcharging The Guardian, Angela Monaghan (7/12/16)
CMA fines drug firms £90m for over-charging NHS nhe (7/12/16)
Pfizer hit with record fine after hiking price of NHS epilepsy drug by 2,600pc – costing taxpayer millions The Telegraph (7/12/16)
Pfizer, Flynn Get Record Fine on 2,600% Drug Price Increase Bloomberg, Patrick Gower (7/12/16)
Phenytoin sodium capsules: suspected unfair pricing Competition and Markets Authority: Case reference: CE/9742-13, Competition and Markets Authority cases (updated 7/12/16)
CMA fines Pfizer and Flynn £90 million for drug price hike to NHS CMA Press Release (7/12/16)
- What are the arguments for drug companies being allowed to charge high prices for new drugs?
- How long should these high prices persist?
- Sketch a diagram to illustrate Pfizer’s price for its anti-epilepsy drug before and after it was de-branded. Illustrate the effect on Pfizer’s profits from the drug.
- What determines the price elasticity of demand for (a) a drug which is branded and unique; (b) a drug produced by a specific producer but which is generic and can be produced by a number of producers; (c) a generic drug produced by many producers?
- How should a regulator like the CMA decide what price a firm with market power should be allowed to charge?
- Under what legislation did the CMA fine Pfizer and Flynn Pharma? What is the upper limit to the fine it is able to impose? Did it impose the maximum fine on Pfizer?
Profits are maximised where marginal cost equals marginal revenue. And in a perfectly competitive market, where price equals marginal revenue, profits are maximised where marginal cost equals price. But what if marginal cost equals zero? Should the competitive profit-maximising firm give the product away? Or is there simply no opportunity for making a profit when there is a high degree of competition?
This is the dilemma considered in the articles linked below. According to Jeremy Rifkin, what we are seeing is the development of technologies that have indeed pushed marginal cost to zero, or close to it, in a large number of sectors of the economy. For example, information can be distributed over the Internet at little or no cost, other than the time of the distributor who is often willing to do this freely in a spirit of sharing. What many people are becoming, says Rifkin, are ‘prosumers’: producing, sharing and consuming.
Over the past decade millions of consumers have become prosumers, producing and sharing music, videos, news, and knowledge at near-zero marginal cost and nearly for free, shrinking revenues in the music, newspaper and book-publishing industries.
What was once confined to a limited number of industries – music, photography, news, publishing and entertainment – is now spreading.
A new economic paradigm – the collaborative commons – has leaped onto the world stage as a powerful challenger to the capitalist market.
A growing legion of prosumers is producing and sharing information, not only knowledge, news and entertainment, but also renewable energy, 3D printed products and online college courses at near-zero marginal cost on the collaborative commons. They are even sharing cars, homes, clothes and tools, entirely bypassing the conventional capitalist market.
So is a collaborative commons a new paradigm that can replace capitalism in a large number of sectors? Are we gradually becoming sharers? And elsewhere, are we becoming swappers?
Capitalism is making way for the age of free The Guardian, Jeremy Rifkin (31/3/14)
The End of the Capitalist Era, and What Comes Next Huffington Post, Jeremy Rifkin (1/4/14)
Has the Post-Capitalist Economy Finally Arrived? Working Knowledge, James Heskett (2/4/14)
- In what aspects of your life are you a prosumer? Is this type of behaviour typical of what has always gone on in families and society?
- If marginal cost is zero, why may average cost be well above zero? Illustrate with a diagram.
- Could a monopolist make a profit if marginal cost was zero? Again, illustrate with a diagram.
- Is it desirable for there to be temporary monopoly profits for inventors of new products and services?
- What is meant by a ‘collaborative commons’? Do you participate in such a commons and, if so, how and why?
- Should tweets and Facebook posts be regarded as output?
- What is meant by an internet-of-things infrastructure?
- What are the incentives for authors to contribute to Wikipedia?
- Could marginal cost ever be zero for new physical products?
- Think about the things you buy in the supermarket. Could any of these be produced at zero marginal cost?
- How can capitalists make profits as ‘aggregators of network services and solutions’?
- Provide a critique of Rifkin’s arguments.
A remarkable event took place in Venezuela on Friday 8th November. Soldiers, on the orders of the president, temporarily occupied a chain of shops run by a leading electrical retailer called Dakar. The shops were forced to cut the prices of their electrical appliances and five managers were arrested and accused of ‘hiking up’ prices.
Unsurprisingly, news of these lower prices spread very quickly and long queues rapidly appeared outside the stores as people hoped to buy plasma televisions, fridges and washing machines at bargain prices. On Sunday 9th November, the president, Nicolas Maduro, gave a televised address in which he condemned the owners of the stores and announced that he was going to ask the National Assembly to grant him extra powers so that he could extend price controls to all consumer goods. He stated that he would next turn his attention to stores selling toys, cars, textiles and shoes.
The use of price controls in Venezuela is not new and dates back to 2003 when they were first introduced by the then president Hugo Chavez. Initially the regulations were imposed on various foods and basic goods. For example, by 2009 maximum prices had been set for cooking oil, white rice, sugar, coffee, flour, margarine, pasta and cheese. Businesses often complained that the maximum prices set by the government were below the costs of production. For example after a maximum price of 2.15 Bolivares was placed on a kilo of rice, producers argued that the cost of producing a kilo of rice was 4.41 Bolivares.
The impact of the maximum prices in Venezuela appears to have been exactly what the theories in the economics textbooks would have predicted – shortages, long queues of people waiting outside shops and a flourishing black market. An article on the shortage of toilet rolls has been discussed in a previous article on this news site: Shortages in Venezuela- what’s the solution? However this has not stopped the Venezuelan government extending the scheme and increasing the number of products that have maximum prices imposed on them. In 2011 Hugo Chavez argued that the policy was required because:
The market has…become a perverse mechanism where big monopolies, the big trans-nationals and the bourgeoise dominate and ransack the people.
Economics textbooks often include some analysis of the impact of price ceilings on a competitive market. The effects on consumer surplus, producer surplus and deadweight welfare are usually discussed. However the potential administrative costs are rarely considered. The Venezuelan case helps to illustrate how in practise these costs could be quite significant.
For example, in April 2012 price controls in Venezuela were extended to a range of 19 products including fruit juice, toilet paper, nappies, soap, detergent, deodorant, toothpaste, baby food, floor polish, mineral water and razor blades. This caused a reduction in prices of between 4% and 25%. However this did not simply mean setting 19 different maximum prices because the goods were all sold in different quantities or different package sizes. For example a tube of toothpaste could be purchased in 4 different sizes – 50ml, 75ml, 100ml and 150 ml. Therefore officials had to set 4 different figures. Nappies were sold in 12 different package sizes ranging from10 nappies/packet to78 nappies/packet. Once again this meant that the administrators had to set 10 different maximum prices just for nappies. In total across the 19 products government officials had to set prices for 616 different individual items!! Companies were given just one month to adjust to the new legislation.
Whenever maximum prices are imposed on a competitive market both frustrated buyers and sellers have an incentive to evade them and trade illegally. Therefore the government established a number of organisations in an attempt to make sure the prices were enforced. One agency is called The National Superintendency of Fair Costs and Prices or Sundecop. Officials from this agency were sent out to 82 retail outlets in April 2012 to try to make sure that firms were sticking to the new regulated prices. They also printed and handed out leaflets to the public informing them of the changes. Another agency is called ‘The Institute for the Defense of People’s Access to Goods and Services’ or ‘Indepabis’. This organisation launched a new strategy in June 2012 in order to monitor compliance. This included the creation of a network called the Friends of Indepabis which would act as an information point for members of the public to report illegal pricing. A new complaints phone line was also introduced.
If president Maduro is granted the power to extend maximum prices to all consumer products, then one can only begin to imagine the extra administrative costs involved with implementing the policy.
Venezuelan president Maduro ‘to expand price controls’ BBC News (11/11/13)
Venezuela sends in troops to force electronics chain to charge ‘fair’ prices NBC News (13/11/13)
Venezuela appliances crackdown spurs uncertainty ABC news (13/11/13)
Venezuela’s government seizes electronic goods shops BBC News (9/11/13)
Venezuelan government sends TROOPS into electronics chain to force them to sell goods at a “fair price” DailyMirror (10/11/13)
Shocher: Price Controls Lead to Shortages in Venezuela Free Advice, Robert Murphy (2/10/13)
Venezuelan Government Action against Overpricing Welcomed by Citizens, Manipulated by Media venezuelanalysis (12/11/13).
- Explain why a maximum price imposed on a competitive market might generate a shortage. Draw a diagram to illustrate and explain your answer.
- Are there any circumstances when a maximum price would not cause a shortage in a competitive market?
- Analyse the impact of a maximum price on consumer surplus, producer surplus and deadweight welfare loss. Assume the market is competitive and clearly state any other assumptions you have made in your analysis. Comment on the impact of the price ceiling on economic efficiency.
- Illustrate and explain what would happen to consumer surplus and deadweight welfare loss if the available goods for sale were only purchased by the consumers with the lowest willingness to pay.
- Why might a maximum price lead to a flourishing black market?
- The former president, Hugo Chavez, argued that the price regulations were required because “big monopolies… ransack the people”. Using economic theory discuss this statement. Examine the impact of a maximum price on a pure monopoly.
In 2009, the European Commission investigated Microsoft’s practice of bundling its own browser, Internet Explorer, with new copies of Windows. It found that this was an abuse of market power and created an unfair barrier to entry of other browsers, such as Firefox.
An agreement was reached that Microsoft would include a ‘choice screen’ in which users in the EU would be given a full list of alternative browsers and asked which they would like to install. On making their selection, a link would take them to the browser site to download the installation program. This screen would be available until 2014. Between March 2010, when the choice screen was first provided and November of the same year, 84 million browsers were downloaded through it.
In May 2011, however, the screen was no longer present on new Windows 7 purchases. The Commission took some time to realise this: indeed it was Microsoft’s rivals that pointed it out. The screen reappeared some 13 months later, after some 15m copies of Windows software had been sold.
For this lapse, the Commission has just fined Microsoft €561m. Commission Vice President in charge of competition policy, Joaquín Almunia, said:
In 2009, we closed our investigation about a suspected abuse of dominant position by Microsoft due to the tying of Internet Explorer to Windows by accepting commitments offered by the company. Legally binding commitments reached in antitrust decisions play a very important role in our enforcement policy because they allow for rapid solutions to competition problems. Of course, such decisions require strict compliance. A failure to comply is a very serious infringement that must be sanctioned accordingly.
This may seem unduly harsh, given that Internet Explorer’s share of the browser market has fallen dramatically. In 2009, it had around 50% of the European market, with its main rival at the time, Mozilla’s Firefox, having just under 40%. By 2013, Internet Explorer’s share has fallen to around 24% and Firefox’s to around 29%. Google’s Chrome, which was just starting up in 2009, has seen its share of the European market rise to around 35% and is now the market leader. Partly this is due to the rise in tablets and smartphones, a large proportion of which use Google’s Android operating system and the Chrome browser.
Not surprisingly, the European Commission is investigating Google to see whether it is abusing a dominant position. Is Google’s case, it’s not just about its share of the browser market, it’s more about its share of the search market, which in the EU is around 90% (compared with around 65% in the USA). As The Economist article below states:
The Commissioner believes that Google may be favouring its own specialised services (eg, for flights or hotels) at rivals’ expense; that its deals with publishers may unfairly exclude competitors; and that it prevents advertisers from taking their data elsewhere.
Joaquín Almunia asked Google to respond to these concerns by January 31. Google delivered its suggestions on the deadline, but we await to hear precisely what it said and how the Commission will respond. It is understood that Google’s proposal is for clearly labelling its own products on its search engine.
Microsoft Fined $732 Million By EU Over Browser eWeek, Michelle Maisto (6/3/13)
Microsoft faces hefty EU fine The Guardian (6/3/13)
Sin of omission The Economist (9/3/13)
Microsoft fined by European Commission over web browser BBC News (6/3/13)
EU commissioner Joaquin Almunia announces Microsoft fine BBC News (6/3/13)
Microsoft’s European Fine Comes in an Era of Browser Diversity Forbes, J.P. Gownder (6/3/13)
Life after Firefox: Can Mozilla regain its mojo? BBC News, Dave Lee (11/4/12)
Google responds to European commission’s antitrust chief The Guardian, Charles Arthur (31/1/13)
Google May Clinch EU Settlement After ‘Summer,’ Almunia Says Bloomberg Businessweek, Stephanie Bodoni and Aoife White (22/2/13)
European Commission Press Release
Antitrust: Commission fines Microsoft for non-compliance with browser choice commitments Europa (6/3/13)
- Why did Microsoft’s share of the browser market continue to decline between May 2011 and June 2012?
- Why would it matter if Microsoft had market power in the browser market, given that it’s free for anyone to download a browser?
- In what ways might Google be abusing a dominant position in the market?
- Can Mozilla regain its mojo?
- According to the second Guardian article, the Microsoft-backed lobby group Icomp said “To be seen as a success, any settlement must … include specific measures to restore competition and allow other parties to compete effectively on a level playing field with Google in the key markets of search and search advertising.” Give examples of such measures and assess how successful they might be.
- Would “clearly labelling its own products on its search engine” be enough to ensure adequate competition?