In many parts of the UK, bus services are run by a single operator. In other parts, it is little different, with the main operator facing competition on only a very limited number of routes. Over the whole of England, Scotland and Wales there are 1245 bus operators, but the ‘big five’ (Arriva, FirstGroup, Go-Ahead, National Express and Stagecoach) carry some 70% of passengers. Generally these five companies do not compete with each other, but, instead, operate as monopolies, or near monopolies, in their own specific areas. On average, the largest operator in an urban area runs 69% of local bus services.
Given this lack of competition and potential abuse of monopoly power, the Office of Fair Trading referred local bus services in Great Briatin (excluding London) to the Competition Commission (CC) in January 2010. The CC has just published its final report. Paragraph 5 of the summary to the report states:
We concluded that there were four features of local bus markets which mean that effective head-to-head competition is uncommon and which limit the effectiveness of potential competition and new entry. These features are the existence of: high levels of concentration; barriers to entry and expansion; customer conduct in deciding which bus to catch; and operator conduct by which operators avoid competing with other operators in ‘Core Territories’ (certain parts of an operator’s network which it regards as its ‘own’ territory) leading to geographic market segregation.
And paragraph 8 states:
We decided on a package of remedies with three main elements to address the AECs [adverse effects on competition] that we found. First, the remedies include market-opening measures to reduce barriers to entry and expansion, thereby reducing market concentration and providing an environment in which competition is likely to be sustained. By reducing barriers to entry and expansion, we also expect it to become harder for operators to sustain a coordinated outcome. Second, the remedies include measures to promote competition in relation to the tendering of contracts for supported services. Third, we made recommendations about the wider policy and regulatory environment, including emphasizing compliance with and effective enforcement of competition law.
The following articles look at the findings of the report and at the potential for improving the service to passengers, in terms of quality, frequency and price.
Competition regulator outlines bus market shake-up The Telegraph (20/12/11)
Bus market not competitive, Competition Commission says BBC News (20/12/11)
Passengers ‘need more bus rivalry’ Press Association (20/12/11)
Competition Commission publications
CC sets out Future Destination for Bus Market Competition Commission News Release (20/12/11)
Bus Market Inquiry: Final Report, Case Studies and Appendices Competition Commission (20/12/11)
Local Bus Services: Accompanying Documents Competition Commission (20/12/11)
- What are the barriers to entry in the market for local bus services?
- In what circumstances are local bus services a natural monopoly? Is this generally the case?
- In a non-regulated bus market, how could established operators use predatory pricing to drive out new entrants?
- How may offering reductions for return tickets reduce competition on routes where there is a large operator and one or more smaller ones?
- What practices can established large operators use to drive out smaller competitors?
- Go through the four reasons given by the CC why head-to-head competition in local bus markets is uncommon and in each case consider what remedies could be adopted by the regulator or by local authorities.
- Which of the remedies proposed by the CC involve encouraging more competition and which involve tighter regulation?
In October 2004, the USA lodged a complaint with the WTO. The claim was that the EU was paying illegal subsidies to Airbus to develop new aircraft, such as the superjumbo, the A380. This provoked a counter-complaint by Airbus, claiming unfair subsidies for Boeing by the US government since 1992. In July 2005, two panels were set up to deal with the two sets of allegations.
A ruling on the US claim was published on 30 June 2010. The WTO found Airbus guilty of using some illegal subsidies to win contracts through predatory pricing. For example, some of the ‘launch aid’ (LA) for research and development was given at below market rates and hence violated WTO rules. Also the provision of infrastructure and infrastructure grants for runways, factories, etc. also violated the rules. However, the WTO dismissed some of Boeing’s claims, as many of the subsidies were reimbursable at commercial rates of interest.
We still await a ruling on the EU’s complaint against US support for Boeing. This is due later in July.
WTO backs Boeing in Airbus dispute Financial Times, Joshua Chaffin and Jeremy Lemer (30/6/10)
FACTBOX-Subsidies and the WTO – issue at heart of Airbus case Reuters (30/6/10)
Q&A-What next in the Airbus dispute? Reuters (30/6/10)
TIMELINE-Key dates in Airbus subsidy dispute Reuters (30/6/10)
EU Airbus subsidies illegal, says WTO BBC News (30/6/10)
Boeing and Airbus row ruling to be made public BBC News, Richard Scott (30/6/10)
European loan rates to Airbus illegally low, says WTO Europolitics, Chiade O’Shea (30/6/10)
Airbus Subsidies From Europe Are Ruled Improper New York Times, Christopher Drew (30/6/10)
Airbus-Boeing Rivals May Benefit From Spat Aviation Week, Madhu Unnikrishnan (28/6/10)
WTO issues panel report on Airbus dispute WTO (30/6/10)
Data on orders and deliveries
Competition between Airbus and Boeing (orders and deliveries) Wikipedia
- What is meant by ‘predatory pricing’?
- Which subsidies were found to be illegal by the WTO? What was it about them that violated WTO rules?
- What is Airbus’s complaint against Boeing?
- How might strategic trade theory be used to justify subsidies given to Airbus?
- In what ways might the disputes between Boeing and Airbus benefit other aircraft manufacturers?
Increasing traffic on the roads is observable by everyone and government policy is focused on reducing the demand for road space, rather than increasing its supply. One method has been to improve public transport and make it a viable substitute for car travel. Private costs of motoring have increased, but if there is no viable alternative, people will continue to demand car travel. Investment in buses and trains has improved their quality: they are more frequent, more reliable, arguably more comfortable and supposed to be part of an integrated transport policy. Local bus services provide a crucial link for local communities, but it is these services that are now facing problems.
In your economics lectures, you may have looked at local bus services, when you considered monopolies, oligopolies and possibly contestable markets. Oligopolies, whilst closer to the monopoly end of the market spectrum can be very competitive, but are also open to collusion and anti-competitive practices. The local bus sector has been referred to the Competition Commission by the Office of Fair Trading through complaints of ‘predatory tactics’ by companies. It is argued that local bus services, by limiting competition, are causing prices to rise and the quality of service to fall. One key issue is that those companies established in the market are alleged to be acting aggressively towards smaller bus companies and thus reducing competition in the industry. A low number of bids for supported service contracts in many areas, local bus routes dominated by a few large companies and predatory actions by incumbent firms are all complaints that this industry is facing.
This investigation is especially important, given the amount of public money that goes into the bus industry: £1.2bn. Investigations found that in areas of limited competition, prices were 9p higher. A number of take-overs have contributed to this situation. Two-thirds of bus services are controlled by only five operators. This limits competition in the market and hence is argued to be against public interest. Yet, industry representatives still argue that the market is competitive. Read the following articles and answer the questions about this issue. Was the OFT right to to initiate this investigation?
Local buses to be re-regulated BBC News (27/9/09)
OFT refers UK bus market to Competition Commission Dow Jones Newswires, Kaveri Nihthyananthan (7/1/10)
Office of Fair Trading prompts probe into bus services Guardian (7/1/10)
Trasport groups fear OFT competition probe over buses Telegraph, Alistair Osborne (4/1/10)
Bus industry competition queried BBC News (20/8/09)
OFT refers bus industry on poor service and prices Times Online, Francesca Steele (7/1/10)
Inquiry into local bus market ‘may delay investment’ Scotsman, Hamish Rutherford (5/1/10)
- Why are local bus services argued to be (a) a monopoly; (b) an oligopoly?
- What are the main aspects of UK competition policy?
- What is a concentration ratio and how does this apply to the bus industry?
- What predatory tactics are being used in the local bus industry and how do they affect competition, prices and quality?
- Why may limited competition be against the public interest?
- Traffic congestion is a major problem. Explain the economic theory behind government intervention in this area. Think about the effects of taxes; building more roads; investment in substitutes. Which is likely to be the most effective method?
The European Competition authorities have just imposed a record fine of €1.06 billion for anti-competitive practices under Article 82 of the Treaty of Amsterdam. The fine was imposed on Intel, the world’s largest computer chip producer, for paying computer manufacturers to favour its chips over those of its main rival AMD. But were its practices against the interests of the consumer, as the European Commission and AMD maintain, or did it simply result in lower prices, as Intel maintains? The following articles explore the issues.
Intel on offensive in EU case BBC News (23/9/09)
Intel Fined $1.45 Bln by EU for Abuse of Dominance Announcement of fine by EU Competition Commissioner, Neelie Kroes: YouTube (13/5/09)
A billion-euro question The Economist (14/5/09) (see also)
EU fines Intel $1.45b for sales tactics The Chronicle Herald (Canada) (17/5/09)
Why Intel was fined in Europe — but not the U.S. USA Today: TechnologyLive (15/5/09)
EU slaps a record fine on Intel (plus video) BBC News (13/5/09) (see also)
European commission and Intel fine: Q and A Guardian (13/5/09)
Intel’s chipped credibility CNN Money, Fortune (14/5/09)
Intel–Anti-competitive or No? BusinessWeek (13/5/09)
Anti-competitve Intel fined record €1bn Times Online (14/5/09)
- Does a firm giving its customers discounts to use its products instead of a rivals always constitute predatory pricing?
- Under what circumstances would behaviour such as that of Intel be (a) against and (b) in the public interest?
- What is meant by ‘ordoliberalism’? How is the concept relevant to understanding the different approaches of regulatory authorities in different countries? (see USA Today article)