One type of market failing is the asymmetric information between producers and consumers. Advertising, branding and marketing can either help to reduce consumers’ limited information or play on ignorance to mislead consumers.
Misleading consumers is what the pharmaceutical company Reckitt Benckiser is accused of doing with its Nurofen brand of painkillers. There are very few types of painkiller – the most common three being paracetamol, ibuprofen and aspirin. These are sold cheaply in chemists as unbranded ‘generic products’. Or you can buy much more expensive branded versions of the same drugs. Many people believe that the branded versions are more effective as they are cleverly marketed.
Reckitt Benckiser has been found guilty by the Australian federal court of deceiving consumers. The company produces various varieties of Nurofen, each claiming to target a particular type of pain. But Nurofen Back Pain, Nurofen Period Pain, Nurofen Migraine Pain and Nurofen Tension Headache are in fact identical! And in many outlets, they were sold at different prices – a form of price discrimination reflecting the strength of demand by consumers for a particular type of pain relief.
And now the UK Advertising Standards Authority is investigating the company over whether its adverts for Nurofen Express are misleading by stating that the product ‘gives you faster headache relief than standard paracetamol or ibuprofen’. Also it is investigating the company’s claim that its products directly target muscles in the head. Both Nurofen Migraine Pain and Nurofen Tension Headache claim on the front of the box to provide ‘targeted rapid relief’.
The company adopts similar practices in its combined pain-killer and decongestant drugs for relieving cold symptoms. For example, its Nurofen Cold and Flu Relief, Nurofen Day and Night Cold and Flu, Nurofen Sinus and Blocked Nose and Nurofen Sinus Pain Relief all contain the same quantities of ibuprofen and the decongestant phenylephrine hydrochloride, but each claims to do something different.
So there are various issues here. The first is whether excessive profits are made by charging a price typically 3 to 4 times greater than the identical generic version of the drug; the second is whether the company deliberately misleads consumers by claiming that a particular version of the drug targets a particular type of pain; the third is whether ‘faster acting’ versions are significantly different; the fourth is whether price discrimination is being practised.
Nurofen maker Reckitt Benckiser suffers advertising headaches Financial Times, Robert Cookson and Scheherazade Daneshkhu (15/12/15)
Nurofen Express advertising claims probed by UK watchdog BBC News (15/12/15)
ASA probing ‘misleading’ painkiller claims in advert by drug firm behind Nurofen The Telegraph, Tom Morgan and agency (15/12/15)
The great painkiller con: Top drug brands accused of huge mark-ups and misleading claims Mail Online, Sean Poulter and John Naish (16/12/15)
Nurofen Under Investigation By UK Watchdog Over Claims Advert ‘Misled’ Customers Huffington Post, Natasha Hinde (15/12/15)
Australian Competition & Consumer Comission media release
Court finds Nurofen made misleading Specific Pain claims ACCC (14/12/15)
- Is price discrimination always against the consumer’s interests?
- What form of price discrimination is being practised in the case of Nurofen?
- How, do you think, does Reckitt Benckiser decide the prices it charges retailers for its pain killers and how, do you think, do retailers determine the price they charge consumers for them?
- Is it a reasonable assumption that branded products in most cases are better than own-brand or generic versions? How is behavioural theory relevant here?
- If Reckitt Benckiser were banned from using the word ‘targets’ when referring to one of its product’s effect on particular type of pain, could the company instead use the words ‘suitable for’ relieving a particular type of pain and thereby avoid misleading consumers?
- What is the best way of improving consumer knowledge about particular types of over-the-counter drugs and their effects on the body?
- Comment on the following statement by Dr Aomesh Bhatt, the company’s medical affairs director: ‘The Nurofen specific-pain range was launched with an intention to help consumers navigate their pain relief options, particularly within the grocery environment where there is no healthcare professional to assist decision making.’
A bumper olive crop in Spain would seem to be good news for Spanish olive growers. But the effect has been a fall in the prices of olives and olive oil. With 43% of the global supply, Spain is the world’s largest olive oil producer and changes in Spanish output have a big effect on the world price.
Premium extra virgin olive oil has fallen to its lowest level (even in nominal terms) since 2002. Today the price is around $2900 (£1850) a tonne in the wholesale market; in May 2006 it peaked at nearly $5854 – double today’s price.
And while this is bad news for Spanish farmers, for farmers in countries without bumper harvests, the low prices are even harder to bear.
The problem is being exacerbated by a fall in demand in many countries currently suffering recession, such as Greece, Portugal and Italy – all big olive oil consumers. Although olive oil prices have fallen, it is still more expensive than various substitutes. Many people are thus buying these cheaper alternatives, such as sunflower oil, especially for cooking.
What is more, cheaper substitutes for olive oil are increasing in supply. Take the case of rape seed oil in the UK. As the Mail Online article, linked to below, reports:
“UK rape planting is thought to have hit an all-time high this year as British farmers take advantage of the high prices being demanded for rapeseed – base ingredient of many vegetable oils and other edible oils.
Much of the UK crop is used by the local food industry, although some analysts are predicting strong UK yields will give farmers the opportunity to export more to Europe. Because of rising export demand, oil users in the UK claim there is little to indicate the price they are paying for rapeseed oil will drop substantially in the near future.”
The market for olive oil is global. Crop yields in one part of the world, both of olives and of substitute crops, affect global prices and hence growers’ incomes worldwide.
Debt hit countries suffer from olive oil price dip Euronews (28/5/12)
Olive oil price slides as glut hits southern Europe Gulf News, Javier Blas (29/5/12)
Farmers feel squeeze as olive oil price slips The National, Gregor Stuart Hunter (29/5/12)
Olive oil surplus adds to economic pain in Spain The Week (29/5/12)
Olive oil price fall brings further pain for Spain, Italy and Greece The Telegraph (28/5/12)
Pass notes No 3183: Olive oil Guardian (28/5/12)
More Storage Aid for Virgin Olive Oil Olive Oil Times, Julie Butler (17/5/12)
Yellow Britain from the air: Rapeseed’s relentless march across the country pictured in vivid colour as farmers cash in after price of crop’s oil soars Mail Online, Sean Poulter (29/5/12)
Commodity Prices Index Mundi
Olive Oil, extra virgin Monthly Price – US Dollars per Metric Ton Index Mundi
- Identify the factors that have contributed to the fall in the price of olive oil. Illustrate the effects on a demand and supply diagram.
- Explain what is meant by the fallacy of composition and how it relates to a price taker, such as a farmer.
- How do the price elasticities of demand and supply of olive oil help to explain the magnitude of the price fall?
- What developments in other vegetable oils are affecting the olive oil market? What determines the magnitude of these effects?
- What actions have been taken by the EU to support the olive oil market? Is this the most appropriate policy response?
- Why are Middle Eastern olive producers unable to compete on cost with the major EU producing countries?
Anyone investing in commodities over the past few weeks will have been in for a bumpy ride. During the first part of 2011, commodity prices have soared (see A perfect storm brewing?). This has fuelled inflation and has caused the Bank of England to revise upwards its forecast for inflation (see Busy doing nothing see also Prospects for Inflation).
But then in the first week of May, commodity prices plumetted. On the 5 May, oil prices fell by 7.9% – their largest daily amount since January 2009. Between 28 April and 6 May silver prices fell from $48.35 per ounce to just over $33.60 per ounce – a fall of over 30%. And it was the same with many other commodities – metals, minerals, agricultural raw materials and foodstuffs.
Many financial institutions, companies and individuals speculate in commodities, hoping to make money buy buying at a low price and selling at a high price. When successful, speculators can make large percentage gains in a short period of time. But they can also lose by getting their predictions wrong. In uncertain times, speculation can be destabilising, exaggerating price rises and falls as speculators ‘jump on the bandwagon’, seeing price changes as signifying a trend. In more stable times, speculation can even out price changes as speculators buy when prices are temporarily low and sell when they are temporarily high.
Times are uncertain at present. Confidence fluctuates over the strength of the world recovery. On days of good economic news, demand for commodities rises as people believe that a growing world economy will drive up the demand for commodities and hence their prices. On days of bad economic news, the price of commodities can fall. The point is that when undertainty is great, commodity prices can fluctuates wildly.
Commodities plunge: Blip or turning point? BBC News, Laurence Knight (6/5/11)
Commodity hedge fund loses $400m in oil slide Financial Times, Sam Jones (8/5/11)
Commodities: ‘epic rout’ or the new normal? BBC News blogs: Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (6/5/11)
Commodities Still a Bubble – But Prices May Continue to Rise Seeking Alpha, ChartProphet (9/5/11)
When a sell-off is good news The Economist, Buttonwood (6/5/11)
Gilt-edged argument The Economist, Buttonwood (28/4/11)
Commodities: What volatility means for your portfolio Reuters blogs: Prism Money (9/5/11)
Gold, silver rise again on debt, inflation concerns Reuters, Frank Tang (10/5/11)
Commodities After The Crash, No Way But Up The Market Oracle, Andrew McKillop (9/5/11)
Outlook 2011:Three Dominant Factors Will Impact Precious Metals in 2011 GoldSeek (9/5/11)
Energy bills set to rise sharply next winter, Centrica warn Guardian, Graeme Wearden (9/5/11)
Dollar triggered commodities ‘flash crash’, not Bin Laden The Telegraph, Garry White, and Rowena Mason (9/5/11)
The outlook for commodity prices Live Mint@The Wall Steet Journal, Manas Chakravarty (11/5/11)
Three ways to play the next commodities bubble Market Watch, Keith Fitz-Gerald (11/5/11)
Commodity Prices Index Mundi
Commodities Financial Times
Commodities BBC Market Data
- Why did commodity prices fall so dramatically in early May, only to rise again rapidly afterwards?
- Why do commodity prices fluctuate more than house prices?
- What is the relevance of price elasticity of demand and supply in explaining the volatility of commodity prices?
- Under what circumstances is speculation likely to be (a) stabilising; (b) destabilising?
- To what extent are rising commodity prices (a) the cause of and (b) the effect of world inflation?
- If commodity prices go on rising every year, will inflation go on rising? Explain.
The prices of grains and other foodstuffs are rising rapidly. Wheat prices rose some 40 per cent in July and have continued to rise rapidly since. In June wheat futures were trading at around 450 US cents/bushel. By early September, they were trading at around 700 US cents/bushel. Global food prices generally rose by 5% over the two months July/August. And it’s not just food. Various other commodity prices, such as copper and oil, have also increased substantially.
At the beginning of September there were three days of food riots in Mozambique in protest against the 30% rise in the price of bread. Seven people were killed and 288 were injured. On 2 September Russia announced that it was extending a ban on wheat exports for another 12 months following a disastrous harvest. In Pakistan, the floods have destroyed a fifth of the country’s crops. Drought in Australia and floods in the Canadian prairies have reduced these countries’ grain production.
In response to the higher prices and fears of food riots spreading, the United Nations has called a special meeting on 24 September to bring food exporters and importers together to consider “appropriate reactions to the current market situation”. And yet, although global cereal production is down by some 5% on last year, it is still predicted to be the third largest harvest on record.
So what is causing the price rises? Is it simply a question of the balance of supply and demand and, if so, what has caused the relevant shifts in supply and/or demand? And what role does speculation play? The following articles look at the issues and at the outlook for commodity prices over the coming months.
Clearly changes in commodity prices affect the rate of inflation. The news item (Bank of England navigates choppy waters) amongst other issues looks at the outlook for inflation and the various factors influencing it.
Commodity prices soar as spectre of food inflation is back Guardian, Simon Bowers (6/8/10)
Food inflation is a rumble that won’t go away Telegraph, Garry White (8/8/10)
Global wheat supply forecast cut BBC News (12/8/10)
Commodity crisis sparks fear of food inflation on high street Independent, James Thompson and Sean O’Grady (10/8/10)
Should we be concerned about high wheat prices? BBC News, Will Smale (6/8/10)
Commodity prices: Wheat The Economist (12/8/10)
Interactive: What’s driving the wheat price spike? Financial Times, Akanksha Awal, Valentina Romei and Steven Bernard (20/8/10)
Wheat pushes world food prices up BBC News (1/9/10)
UN to hold crisis talks on food prices as riots hit Mozambique Guardian, David Smith (3/9/10)
Grain prices spark global supply fears CBC News, Kevin Sauvé (3/9/10)
GRAINS-US wheat firms after Russian ban extension Forex Yard (3/9/10)
Global food prices reach 20 year high BBC News, John Moylan (3/9/10)
Speculators ‘not to blame for higher food costs’ BBC Today Programme, David Hightower (4/9/10)
Q&A: Rising world food prices BBC News (3/9/10)
Don’t starve thy neighbour The Economist (9/9/10)
Commodity prices Index Mundi
Commodity prices BBC market data
Energy prices U.S. Energy Information Administration
- Use a supply and demand diagram to illustrate (a) what has been happening to wheat prices (b) what is likely to happen to wheat prices over the coming months?
- How relevant is the price elasticity of demand and supply and the income elasticity of demand to your analysis?
- What factors have caused the shifts in demand and/or supply of wheat and copper?
- What has been the role of speculation in the price rises? Is this role likely to change over the coming months?
- What is likely to happen to food prices in the shops over the coming months? Would you expect bread prices to rise by the same percentage as wheat? If so, why; if not, why not?
- If commodity prices generally rose by 5 per cent over the coming year, would you expect inflation to be 5 per cent? Again, if so, why; if not, why not?
Oil affects our everyday lives. Whether it’s to heat your house, to run your car or to work out production costs, the price of oil is important. Commodity prices are determined by the interaction of demand and supply and oil prices are no different. As demand and supply for products and for oil itself change, so will the price of oil. However, any changes in the price of this valuable commodity will also have effects on macroeconomic variables, such as inflation. From a high of $147 (£90) per barrel in July 2008, it fell to $30 by the end of the year. But since then it doubled to reach $60 by May and has been around the $70 mark since.
How have these fluctuations affected the economy? Should more be invested in extraction? Extracting oil is an expensive process and requires huge investment, which is problematic given the current recession and various funding issues. The following articles consider this problem, as well as the impact it is likely to have on our economic recovery.
Total issues oil shortage warning BBC News (21/9/09)
Crude price ‘shock’ is next threat to recovery The Independent (22/9/09)
Oil prices slide on demand fears BBC News (21/9/09)
Pound drops as UK stocks fall for first time in seven days Oil-price.net (22/9/09)
Oil prices tumble amid worries over weak demand Channel News Asia (22/9/09)
Oil price touches high for 2009 BBC News (21/8/09)
FTSE soars over surge in oil prices The Press Association (21/9/09)
Oil price data can be found at:
Brent Spot Price (monthly) Energy Information Administration.
Note: you can select daily, weekly, monthly or annual data, and data for other oil markets too. Data can be downloaded to Excel.
- How is the price of oil determined? Why is it so volatile? How is price elasticity of demand relevant to your answer?
- Over the coming ten years, which factors are likely to affect (a) demand for oil (b) supply of oil?
- Explain whether the price of oil is likely to rise faster or less fast than general prices.
- How do changes in the price of oil affect the government’s macroeconomic objectives and its policy decisions?
- Explain why the price of oil is such an important consideration for firms