Tag: natural monopoly

As noted in the posting about the new high-speed rail link (High-speed rail link is on track), transport issues in the UK are always newsworthy topics and here we go again. This time, though, we look to the sky, where air traffic was halted for five days, from April 14th to 19th. Whilst some flights took off on the morning of the 20th April, further volcanic clouds were expected to ground flights at 7pm. Then, with new scientific evidence suggesting that it would be safe to ease restrictions, flights resumed on 21st April.

A big problem during this period was the uncertainty about how long the disruption might last. And even with the easing of restrictions, there was no certainty that dangerous levels of ash might not return if there was a new bout of activity from the volcano and if winds were unfavourable. One thing that was certain is that it would cost the British and other European economies at a time when they can hardly afford it.

The airline industry is already expected to lose £1.4bn this year and the volcanic cloud is estimated to have cost airlines approximately £130 million per day in lost revenues. The tourism industry has also suffered, although the losses are significantly lower. Countries, such as Kenya, that rely heavily on air freight to transport goods have suffered and businesses have also lost out, owing to cancelled meetings, delays to mail and stranded staff. Customers were angry that they might face extra charges to rebook flights and were having to pay for further accommodation. Whilst the direct effects on economic growth were thought to be only minimal, the long-term effects are uncertain. A drop of between 1% and 2% for European GDP was being suggested.

Airlines have been asking for compensation, in particular BA. After a tumultuous time with strikes, such a disruption could not have come at a worse time. BA has estimated costs of between £15m and £20m per day, due to lost passenger and freight revenues, as well as the need to support passengers trapped abroad.

However, the news was not all bad, especially if you are a rail operator or own a shipping company, as other means of transport have seen a huge rise in demand. Many stranded passengers have railed against the ‘profiteering’ of rail, coach and car-hire companies as prices soared. A case of supply and demand?

Iceland volcano cloud: the economic impact BBC News (19/4/10)
BA seeks compensation for volcano losses Telegraph (19/4/10)
Tourists and economy trapped by the volcano eruption in Iceland Balkans Business News (19/4/10)
Iceland volcano: the impact of the ash cloud on Britain Guardian, James Meikle (18/4/10)
Volcano’s ash cloud causes sporting chaos BBC News (20/4/10)
Travel companies lose millions of pounds with UK tourism next to suffer Independent, Alistair Dawber (20/4/10)
Volcanic ash costing airline £130m a day Channel 4 News (19/4/10)
BA demands government compensation as airlines watch reserves go up in smoke Independent (20/4/10)
British Airway seeks compensation for air chaos (including video) BBC News (19/4/10)
How long will chaos last – and what has it cost? Independent (19/4/10)
Europe counting economic cost of volcano CNBC, Patrick Allen (18/4/10)
How could Europe volcano cloud crisis play out? Reuters, Peter Apps (19/4/10)

Questions

  1. Who are the main losers from the volcanic ash cloud? Think about businesses and individuals.
  2. How can other means of transport, such as rail, be seen as a complement and a substitute to air travel?
  3. How can the economic impact of such disruption be estimated? Can you apply a cost–benefit analysis to this situation?
  4. Airlines are losing revenue and hence profits. Try illustrating this on a diagram.
  5. Should the airlines be compensated? If so, how would you propose compensating them? Are there any problems with your proposal?
  6. If one airline is the sole provider of flights between two locations, does it have a natural monopoly? Explain your answer.
  7. What is the impact on UK exports and imports? How might the exchange rate be affected?
  8. Does anyone gain from the volcanic ash cloud? Explain your answer.

Ofcom, the communications regulator, is keen to encourage the spread of super-fast broadband through investment in fibre-optic cabling. So far, super-fast broadband is available to around 46 per cent of the UK population. Both Virgin Media (formerly Telewest and NTL) and BT have invested in fibre optic cables, but Ofcom is keen to extend the use to rival companies.

It proposes two methods: the first is to give competitors access to BT’s cables; the second is to allow competitors to install their own cables using BT’s ducts and telegraph poles. In both cases BT would charge companies to use its infrastructure and would be free to set prices so as to ensure a ‘fair rate of return’.

The articles below consider this ‘solution’ and its likely success in developing competition in the super-fast broadband market through competition, or whether BT’s and Virgin’s market dominance will continue to the detriment of consumers. You can also find links below to the Ofcom report and summaries

Articles
BT welcomes Ofcom’s fibre access plans Reuters, Kate Holton (23/3/10)
Ofcom to encourage super-fast broadband Business Financial Newswire (23/3/10)
Ofcom tells BT to open its fibre network ShareCast (23/3/10)
Ofcom wants BT to open up infrastructure Financial Times, Philip Stafford (23/3/10)
Ofcom push to give broadband rivals access to BT tunnels Financial Times, Tim Bradshaw and Andrew Parker (23/3/10)
BT UK Pushes Ofcom to Open Virgin Medias Broadband Cable Ducts SamKnows, Phil Thompson (23/3/10)
BT welcomes Ofcom’s fibre access plans ISPreview, MarkJ (8/3/10)

Report and summaries
Summary: Enabling a super-fast broadband Britain Ofcom (23/3/10)
Review of the wholesale local access market: full document Ofcom (23/3/10)
Review of the wholesale local access market: summary Ofcom (23/3/10)

Questions

  1. What forms does competition take in the broadband market?
  2. What are the barriers to entry to the super-fast broadband market?
  3. Are fibre-optic networks a natural monopoly? Explain the significance of your answer for competition in the super-fast broadband market.
  4. Will Ofcom’s desire for BT to get a fair return on its wholesale pricing of access to its cabling, ducts and telegraph poles be sufficient to ensure effective competition and that profits are not excessive?
  5. Explain whether it would be in consumers’ interests for competitors to be given access to Virgin’s cables and ducts.

On 26 November, the water industry regulator, Ofwat, published its decisions on the price caps that will apply to all the 21 water companies covering 23 areas in England and Wales from 2010 to 2015. Despite calling for average cuts of £14 in draft proposals released back in July, Ofwat is now requiring an average cut of just £3. This still means that average water prices will be some 10 per cent lower than those sought by the water companies. Note that all these figures are in real terms: i.e. after taking inflation (or deflation) into account.

But while customers in some areas will see their bills frozen in real terms, or even significantly cut, others will see a rise in theirs. The average price change varies from a fall of 7 per cent in Wales, East Anglia and Portsmouth to a rise of 13 per cent in Essex and Suffolk. There is also variation within regions, depending on factors such as whether or not you have a water meter. Thus, in the South West, customers without a meter could see a rise in bills of 29 per cent.

Not surprisingly, Ofwat’s decisions have received mixed reactions. The water companies claim that the price cap is too high to allow them to make the necessary investment in water infrastructure, such as replacing old pipes to cut down on leakages. Water customers, on the other hand, claim that Ofwat has been ‘captured’ by the industry and, as a result, has been much too lenient.

So who is right? And is the current system of 23 separate regional monopolies, regulated through price cap regulation, the best way of structuring and running the water industry? The following articles and videos look at the issues

Ofwat delivers flat bills for customers Ofwat news release (26/11/09)
Ofwat Publishes Its Decisions Regarding The Prices To Be Charged By Water And Sewerage Companies eGov Monitor (26/11/09)
Water prices to remain flat Financial Times, William MacNamara (26/11/09)
Water bills in England and Wales to be cut (including video) BBC News (26/11/09)
Water price cuts ‘could stop leak programmes’ BBC Today Programme (26/11/09)
The Big Question: Should water bills be going down even further than they are? Independent, Martin Hickman (27/11/09)
Water boys the winners with Ofwat? Independent, James Moore (27/11/09)
Households face higher than expected water bills Telegraph, Myra Butterworth (26/11/09)
There’s trouble in the pipeline as Ofwat boss fails to spot the cracks Telegraph, Damian Reece (27/11/09)
Water bills set to drop by only £3 a year Guardian, Tim Webb (26/11/09)
Regulator must find better way to fix water prices Guardian, Nils Pratley (26/11/09)
Water regulator bows to lobbying on bill price cuts (including video) Times Online, Peter Stiff (26/11/09)
Ofwat ruling on water bills will hit millions of unmetered homes Times Online, Robin Pagnamenta (27/11/09)
Water company shares buoyant after Ofwat ruling Guardian, Market Forces blog, Nick Fletcher (26/11/09)
Severn Trent leads water company shares higher after regulator’s review Telegraph (26/11/09)

The full report can be accessed from the Ofwat site at:
Final determinations on price limits Ofwat (26/11/09)

Questions

  1. Is price cap regulation of the RPI–X variety the best form of regulation? Explain with reference to both incentives and the issue of uncertainty.
  2. Explain whether water companies are natural monopolies.
  3. To what extent can competition be introduced into privatised utility industries as an alternative to regulation? Is increased competition a practical alternative to price cap regulation in the water industry?
  4. What are the arguments for and against installing water meters in each home so that people pay per litre used rather than paying a flat charge depending on the property value?
  5. Explain what is meant by ‘regulatory capture’. Is there evidence of regulatory capture in the water industry? Consider with respect to the November 26 ruling.

The east coast mainline from London to Edinburgh is a ‘premium route’. This means that it is one of the lines in the UK that is profitable. When the franchises come up for renewal on such lines, potential operators bid to pay the government for the franchise. National Express won the eight-year franchise in 2007 for a total of £1.4 billion, paid in annual rising instalments.

Although the east coast mainline is still profitable, the recession has meant that passenger numbers have been insufficient for National Express to make its annual payments to the Department for Transport and still be left with a profit. As a result, the government will take the franchise into public ownership later this year. This specially created nationalised company will then operate trains on the route until a new franchise is awarded to a private company at the end of 2010.

So why has this proved necessary? Is it all down do the depth of the recession? Or was the £1.4 billion cost of the franchise unrealistically expensive? Would the answer be for National Express to merge with another operator, such as the First Group? Or should the government be prepared to waive, or at least reduce, the franchise payments until passenger numbers are growing fast enough? Or is it time to rethink the whole UK model of rail privatisation and perhaps return to a nationalised rail system? The articles below consider the issues.

National Express loses East Coast line Independent (2/7/09)
National Express goes off the rails on east coast line Times Online (4/7/09)
Q&A: the future of National Express and the east coast mainline rail service Guardian (1/7/09)
East Coast main line: Q&A Telegraph (2/7/09)
Runaway train: The crisis in the rail sector Scotsman (5/7/09)
First Group sets sights on East Coast Business7 (3/7/09)
National Express’s decision to quit East Coast franchise is a lose-lose for nearly everyone Telegraph (4/7/09)
Focus turns to rail franchise system Financial Times (2/7/09)
Rail network: red signals ahead Guardian (2/7/09)
Have we reached the end of the line for privatisation? Observer (5/7/09)
Privatisation has been a train wreck: Ken Livingstone Guardian (2/7/09)
New Capitalism: Old Capitalism except taxpayer money is at risk: Iain Macwhirter Sunday Herald (5/7/09)

Questions

  1. Consider the relative merits of temporary nationalisation of the east coast mainline services with providing temporary support for National Express.
  2. Should profitable rail franchises be awarded to the highest bidder? Similarly, should loss-making franchises be awarded to companies bidding for the lowest subsidy?
  3. Discuss the arguments for and against a complete re-nationalisation of the railways.
  4. With reference to the final article above, explain what is meant by a Special Purpose Vehicle and whether it was an appropriate means for National Express to fund its £1.4 billion franchise. What dangers are associated with this and other new forms of ‘no-risk capitalism’? Is there a ‘moral hazard’ in this form of capitalism?

Passenger groups have reacted angrily to the raising of off-peak fares by South West Trains by around 20% on many journeys. The train company has increased unregulated fares significantly where there is little competition, but appears to have limited the increases on journeys where there is competition. Is this an abuse of their monopoly position?

Train firm accused of abusing monopoly Times Online (8/5/07)
Price hike angers train watchdog BBC News Online (8/5/07)


Questions
1. Discuss the extent to which South West Trains has a monopoly on its rail journeys.
2. Using diagrams as appropriate, show the reasons why South West Trains has chosen to increase off-peak prices by as much as 20%.
3. Discuss the likely value of the price elasticity of demand for off-peak rail journeys. To what extent will this have influenced South West Trains’ pricing decision?