A big expenditure for many households is petrol. The price of petrol is affected by various factors, but the key determinant is what happens in the oil market. When oil prices rise, this pushes up the price of petrol at the pumps. But, when they fall, do petrol prices also fall? That is the question the government is asking.
The price of oil is a key cost of production for companies providing petrol and so when oil prices rise, it shifts the supply curve up to the left and hence prices begin to increase. We also see supply issues developing with political turmoil, fears of war and disruption and they have a similar effect. As such, it is unsurprising that petrol prices rise with concern of supply and rising costs. But, what happens when the opposite occurs? Oil prices have fallen significantly: by a quarter. Yet, prices at the pump have fallen by around 6%. This has caused anger amongst customers and the government is now urging petrol retailers to pass their cost savings from a lower price of oil onto customers. Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury said:
“I believe it’s called the rocket-and-feather effect. The public have a suspicion that when the price of oil rises, pump prices go up like a rocket. But when the price of oil falls, pump prices drift down like a feather … This has been investigated before and no conclusive evidence was found. But even if there were a suspicion it could be true this time it would be an outrage.”
However, critics suggest that tax policy is partly to blame as 63% of the cost of petrol is in the form taxation through fuel duty and VAT. Therefore even if oil prices do fall, the bulk of the price we pay at the pumps is made up of tax revenue for the government. Professor Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation said:
“It’s a simple story. Before tax we have just about the cheapest petrol and diesel in Europe. After tax we have just about the most expensive … It’s right to keep the pressure on fuel retailers but if drivers want to know what’s behind the high pump prices of recent years all they have to do is follow the trail back to the Treasury … if ministers are serious about reducing fuel prices further then they should cut duty further.”
(Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
However, even taking out the fuel duty and VAT, Arthur Renshaw, an analyst at Experian has said that the actual price of petrol has fallen by 21% since last year. Still, a much bigger decrease than we have seen at the pumps. One further reason for this may be the fact that dollars is the currency in which oil is traded. The pound has been relatively weak, falling by almost 7% over the past few months and hence even though the price of oil has fallen, the effect on UK consumers has been less pronounced.
The big supermarkets have responded to government calls to cut petrol prices, but how much of this cut was influenced by the government and how much was influenced by the actions of the other supermarkets is another story. A typical oligopoly, where interdependence is key, price wars are a constant feature, so even if one supermarket cut petrol prices, this would force others to respond in kind. If such price wars continue, further price cuts may emerge. Furthermore, with oil production still at such high levels, this market may continue to put downward pressure on petrol prices. Certainly good news for consumers – we now just have to wait to see how long it lasts, with key oil producing countries, such as Russia taking a big hit. The following articles consider this story.
Supermarkets cut fuel prices again The Telegraph, Nick Collins (6/11/14)
Petrol retailers urged to cut prices in line with falling oil costs The Guardian, Terry Macalister (6/11/14)
Supermarkets cut petrol prices after chancellor’s criticism Financial Times, Michael Kavanagh (6/11/14)
Governent ‘watching petrol firms’ Mail Online (6/11/14)
Our horrendous tax rates are the real reason why petrol is still so expensive The Telegraph, Allister Heath (6/11/14)
Osborne ‘expects’ fuel price drop after fall in oil price BBC News (6/11/14)
Danny Alexander tells fuel suppliers to pass on oil price cuts to drivers The Telegraph, Peter Dominiczak (5/11/14)
Further UK fuel cuts expected as pound strengthens The Scotsman, Alastair Dalton (6/11/14)
Spot oil prices Energy Information Administration
Weekly European Brent Spot Price Energy Information Administration (Note: you can also select daily, monthly or annual.)
Annual Statistical Bulletin OPEC
- Using a supply and demand diagram, illustrate the impact that a fall in the price of oil should have on the price of petrol.
- What is the impact of a tax on petrol?
- Why is petrol a market that is so heavily taxed? You should think about the incidence of taxation in your answer.
- Why does the strength of the pound have an impact on petrol prices in the UK and how much of the oil price is passed onto customers at the pumps?
- Does the structure of the supermarket industry help customers when it comes to the price of petrol? Explain your answer.
- Militant action in some key oil producing countries has caused fears of oil disruption. Why is that oil prices don’t reflect these very big concerns?
As resources become scarce, the price mechanism works to push up the price (see, for example, Box 9.11 in Economics 8th ed). If you look at the price of petrol over the past few decades, there has been a general upward trend – part of this is due to growth in demand, but part is due to oil being a scarce resource. Many millions have been spent on trying to find alternative fuels and perhaps things are now looking up!
Air Fuel Synthesis, a small British company, has allegedly managed to make ‘petrol from air’. Following this, the company has unsurprisingly received finance and investment offers from across the world. However, the entrepreneur Professor Marmont has said that he does not want any company from the oil industry to get a stake in this firm. This doesn’t mean that investment is not needed or on the cards, as in order to increase production of petrol from thin air financing is needed. Professors Marmont said:
We’ve had calls offering us money from all over the world. We’ve never had that before. We’ve made the first petrol with our demonstration plant but the next stage is to build a bigger plant capable of producing 1 tonne of petrol a day, which means we need between £5m and £6m
Whilst the process appears to be a reality, Air Fuel Synthesis is a long way from being able to produce en masse. However, it does offer an exciting prospect for the future of petrol and renewable energy resources in the UK. At the moment oil companies appear to be uninterested, but if this breakthrough receives the financing it needs and progress continues to be made, it will be interesting to see how the big oil companies respond. The following articles consider this break-through.
Company that made ‘petrol from air’ breakthrough would refuse investment from big oil Independent, Steve Connor (19/10/12)
British engineers create petrol from air and water Reuters, Alice Baghdijan (19/10/12)
Petrol from air: will it make a difference? BBC News, Jason Palmer (19/10/12)
British engineers produce amazing ‘petrol from air’ technology The Telegraph , Andrew Hough (18/10/12)
- Explain the way in which the price mechanism works as resources become scarce. Use a diagram to help your explanation.
- As raw materials become scarce, prices of the goods that use them to work or require them to be produced will be affected. Explain this interdependence between markets.
- Why is investment from an oil company such a concern for Professor Marmont?
- Why is there unlikely to be any impact in the short run from this new breakthrough?
- If such a technology could be put into practice, what effect might this have on the price of petrol?
- How might oil companies react to the growth in this technology?
One problem for motorists at the moment is the cost of petrol, where prices have reached over 1.37p on average, as we considered in the blog It’s fuelling anger. However, another problem could soon materialise and that is no petrol. Back in 2000, there was massive disruption to the public with a fuel blockade and a similar thing could occur, following the ‘yes’ vote by fuel tank drivers in favour of strike action.
Over the past few years, strikes have occurred across a variety of industries and if this one did happen with no contingency plan in place, disruption would be significant to both private individuals and companies. Drivers from Unite (the trade union) supply over 90% of fuel to UK garages and so any strike could lead to the closure of up to 7,900 stations.
However, the government has begun to consider the worst case scenario, if talks do not work with plans to begin training army drivers. There are concerns that without these plans in place, disruption across the country may occur with supermarkets, garages and airports all facing fuel shortages. Those who have a job that relies on travel, or even those who simply use their cars or buses to get to work will also feel the effects. Other problems within the emergency services could also emerge, but the government has assured the public that their fuel would be prioritised. The following articles consider this issue.
Fuel strike drivers vote yes in row over conditions BBC News (26/3/12)
Plan for fuel strike, says Downing Street Financial Times, George Parker (27/3/12)
Talks urged to avert fuel tanker strike Independent, Andrew Woodcock and David Mercer (27/3/12)
Ed Miliband: Fuel strike must be avoided at all costs Telegraph, James Hall (27/3/12)
All striking tanker drivers want is responsible minimum standards Guardian, Len McCluskey (27/3/12)
- If a trade union bargains for higher wages, what is the likely effect on employment and unemployment?
- How might strike action by tankers affect businesses?
- Are there likely to be any adverse long term effects if strike action does occur over Easter?
- How could strike action affect a firm’s costs of production? Think in particular about those who rely on travel as part of the business.
- What other options are there to trade unions, besides striking? Assess the effectiveness of each of the options.
- If a shortage of petrol emerged, what would you expect to happen to its market price?
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.