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?
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?
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), launched in October 2013, has been operating since April of this year. It is the successor to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) and the Competition Commission. One of the current cases under investigation by the CMA is that of suspected criminal cartel activity in the supply of galvanised steel tanks.
On 11 July, Clive Geoffrey Dean, a former director of Kondea, and Nicholas Simon Stringer, a former director of Galglass, appeared before Westminster Magistrates Court. They were charged with dishonestly agreeing with others to divide customers, fix prices and rig bids between 2004 and 2012. The deals were with a number of companies. The charges are under section 188 of the Enterprise Act 2002.
This is the second prosecution in this case. On 17 June 2014, Mr Peter Nigel Snee, Managing Director of Franklin Hodge Industries, pleaded guilty to similar charges.
Under the Act, directors found guilty face custodial sentences of up to 5 years and unlimited fines. The CMA and government are keen to send the message that they will not tolerate cartels and that board members had better beware of colluding with other companies. Indeed, the CMA is committed to pursuing cases of suspected criminal cartels more frequently and more rigorously.
The question is whether this will deter criminal collusion or whether it will simply make companies more careful to keep collusion hidden from the authorities.
Two men face charges in ongoing criminal cartel investigation CMA Press Release (11/7/14)
The First Real Test of Sentencing for the UK Cartel Offence Competition Policy Blog: UEA/ESRC/ccp, Andreas Stephan (24/6/14)
An Important Watershed in the CMA’s Prosecution of the Criminal Cartel Offence Eversheds (18/6/14)
- What types of restrictive practices constitute ‘cartel agreements’?
- In what ways are cartels against the interests of their customers?
- Are there any ways in which consumers might gain from a cartel?
- What factors are taken into consideration in deciding whether a director is guilty under section 188 of the 2002 Enterprise Act.
- Find out what other cases are being considered by the CMA. Choose one or two and examine how the activities of the firms/people involved might adversely affect consumers or other firms.
- Is anti-cartel legislation in the UK similar to that in the EU for cartels operating in more than one EU country?
Coffee prices have been falling on international commodity markets. In August, the International Coffee Organization’s ‘composite indicator price’ fell to its lowest level since September 2009 (see). This reflects changes in demand and supply. According to the ICO’s monthly Coffee Market Report for August 2013 (see):
“Total exports in July 2013 reached 9.1 million bags, 6.6% less than July 2012, but total exports for the first ten months of the coffee year are still up 3.6% at 94.5 million bags. In terms of coffee consumption, an increase of 2.1% is estimated in calendar year 2012 to around 142 million bags, compared to 139.1 million bags in 2011.”
But despite the fall in wholesale coffee prices, the price of a coffee in your local coffee shop, or of a jar of coffee in the supermarket, has not been falling. Is this what you would expect, given the structure of the industry? Is it simply a blatant case of the abuse of market power of individual companies, such as Starbucks, or even of oligopolistic collusion? Or are more subtle things going on?
The following articles look at recent trends in coffee prices at both the wholesale and retail level.
Coffee Prices Continue Decline Equities.com, Joel Anderson (17/9/13)
Arabica coffee falls Business Recorder (19/9/13)
Brazil Launches Measures to Boost Coffee Prices N. J. Douek, Jeffrey Lewis (7/9/13)
Coffee Prices Destroyed Bloomberg (4/9/13)
The surprising reality behind your daily coffee: The CUP costs twice as much as the beans that are flown in from South America Mail Online, Mario Ledwith (23/9/13)
Coffeenomics: Four Reasons Why You Can’t Get a Discount Latte Bloomberg Businessweek, Kyle Stock (19/9/13)
Here’s who benefits from falling coffee costs CNBC, Alex Rosenberg (9/9/13)
The great coffee rip-off is no myth Sydney Morning Herald, BusnessDay, Michael Pascoe (23/9/13)
Monthly Coffee Market Report International Coffee Organization (August 2013)
Coffee Prices ICO
ICO Indicator Prices – Annual and Monthly Averages: 1998 to 2013 ICO
Coffee, Other Mild Arabicas Monthly Price – US cents per Pound Index Mundi
Coffee, Robusta Monthly Price – US cents per Pound Index Mundi
- Why have wholesale coffee prices fallen so much since 2011? Are the reasons on the demand side, the supply side or both? Illustrate your answer with a supply and demand diagram.
- What determines the price elasticity of demand for coffee (a) on international coffee markets; (b) in supermarkets; (c) in coffee shops?
- Why has the gap between Arabica and Robusta coffee prices narrowed in recent months?
- Identify the reasons why coffee prices have not fallen in coffee shops.
- The cost of the coffee beans accounts for around 4% of the cost of a cup of coffee in a coffee shop. If coffee beans were to double in price and other costs and profits were to remain constant, by what percentage would a cup of coffee rise?
- How would you set about establishing whether oligopolistic collusion was taking place between coffee shops?
- What is meant by ‘hedging’ in coffee markets? How does hedging affect wholesale coffee prices?
- Explain the statement “If they have hedged correctly, Starbucks and such competitors as Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (GMCR) are likely paying far more for beans right now than current market rates.”
- What are “buffer stocks”. How can governments use buffer stocks (e.g. of coffee beans) to stabilise prices? What is the limitation on their power to do so? Can buffer stocks support higher prices over the long term?
- What are “coffee futures”? What determines their price? What effect will coffee future prices have on (a) the current price of coffee; (b) the actual price of coffee in the future?