The UK energy industry (electricity and gas) is an oligopoly. There are six large suppliers: the ‘Big Six’. These are British Gas (Centrica, UK), EDF Energy (EDF, France), E.ON UK (E.ON, Germany), npower (RWE, Germany), Scottish Power (Iberdrola, Spain) and SSE (SSE Group, UK). The Big Six supply around 73% of the total UK market and around 90% of the domestic market.
Energy suppliers buy wholesale gas and electricity and sell it to customers. The industry has a considerable degree of vertical integration, with the energy suppliers also being involved in both generation and local distribution (long-distance distribution through the familiar pylons is by National Grid). There is also considerable horizontal integration, with energy suppliers supplying both electricity and gas and offering ‘dual-fuel’ deals, whereby customers get a discount by buying both fuels from the same supplier.
Smaller suppliers have complained about substantial barriers to entry in the industry. In particular, they normally have to buy wholesale from one of the Big Six. Lack of transparency concerning their costs and internal transfer prices by the Big Six has led to suspicions that they are charging more to independent suppliers than to themselves.
Under new regulations announced by Ofgem, the industry regulator, the Big Six will have to post the prices at which they will trade wholesale power two years in advance and must trade fairly with independent suppliers or face financial penalties. In addition, ‘a range of measures will make the annual statements of the large companies more robust, useful and accessible.’ According to the Ofgem Press Release:
From 31 March new rules come into force meaning the six largest suppliers and the largest independent generators will have to trade fairly with independent suppliers in the wholesale market, or face financial penalties. The six largest suppliers will also have to publish the price at which they will trade wholesale power up to two years in advance. These prices must be published daily in two one-hour windows, giving independent suppliers and generators the opportunity and products they need to trade and compete effectively.
But will these measures be enough to break down the barriers to entry in the industry and make the market genuinely competitive? The following articles look at the issue.
Boost for small energy firms as Big Six are ordered to trade fairly on wholesale markets or face multi-million pound fines This is Money, Rachel Rickard Straus (26/2/14)
Energy firms told to trade fairly with smaller rivals BBC News, Rachel Fletcher (26/2/14)
Ofgem ramps up scrutiny of Big Six accounts The Telegraph, Denise Roland (26/2/14)
‘Big six’ told to trade fairly – will it make a difference? Channel 4 News, Emma Maxwell (26/2/14)
Energy regulator Ofgem forces trading rules on ‘big six’ suppliers Financial Times, Andy Sharman (26/2/14)
Ofgem tears down barriers to competition to bear down as hard as possible on energy prices Ofgem Press Release (26/2/14)
The energy market explained Energy UK
Energy in the United Kingdom Wikipedia
Big Six Energy Suppliers (UK) Wikipedia
- Describe the structure of the UK energy industry.
- What are the barriers to the entry of new energy suppliers and generators in the UK?
- To what extent is vertical integration in the electricity generation and supply industry in the interests of consumers?
- To what extent is horizontal integration in the electricity and gas markets in the interests of consumers?
- How will requiring the six largest energy suppliers to post their wholesale prices for the next 24 months increase competition in the energy market?
- Is greater transparency about the revenues, costs and profits of energy suppliers likely to make the market more competitive?
- Identify and discuss other measures which Ofgem could introduce to make the energy market more competitive.
A few months ago, in a post on this site I reported that the Competition Commission (CC) had completed their provisional investigation into the concrete and cement market in Great Britain. As I discussed, they concluded that coordination between the main cement producers was resulting in high prices. They are particularly concerned about the impact of high prices in this market because:
Cement is an essential product for the construction and building sectors and the amount of such work that is funded by the public purse only underlines the importance of ensuring that customers get better value for money. We believe our measures can bring about a substantial, swift and lasting increase in competition in this economically vital market.
The next step was for the CC to consider how they could remedy the situation and hopefully improve competition in the market.
Earlier this month, the CC announced the remedies they intend to impose. Having previously suggested that they intended to impose hard-hitting measures, they have been true to their word. The market leader, Lafarge Tarmac, will be required to sell one of its cement plants to facilitate a new entrant into the market. According to Professor Martin Cave, the CC’s Deputy Chairman who led the inquiry:
We believe that the entry of a new, independent cement producer is the only way to disturb the established structure and behaviour in this market which has persisted for a number of years and led to higher prices for customers.
In addition, the CC is also putting in place measures to limit the publication of production data and price announcements. It is hoped that these measures will reduce transparency in the market.
However, Lafarge Tarmac disagrees with the sale they are being forced to make. This is in part because, as I discussed in the earlier post, they had previously been allowed by the CC to form a joint venture (JV) with one its main rivals:
We are disappointed that the Competition Commission has asked Lafarge Tarmac to divest another cement plant only a year after it allowed the creation of the JV. This is not reasonable or proportionate and we have not been given a fair opportunity to defend our position.
In addition, Lafarge Tarmac is quoted in the above article as suggesting that the end result of the CC’s intervention will be harm to consumers. It will be extremely interesting to monitor how this market develops.
Competition Commission confirms plan for new cement producer The Construction Index, (14/01/14)
Competition Commission improves competition in the UK. Again. Global Cement, (22/01/14)
Aggregates, cement and ready-mix concrete market investigation, Final report, Competition Commission, (14/01/14)
- Why might the publication of production data and price announcements help to facilitate coordination between firms?
- Would you expect the new entrant or the measures to limit the publication of production data and price announcements to have more impact on competition in the market?
- Using a supply and demand model, describe the impact the CC’s intervention could have on the construction market.
The Competition Commission (CC) recently completed their provisional investigation into the cement and concrete market in Great Britain (press release). They concluded that coordination between the main cement producers is resulting in high prices.
In contrast, to illegal cartels (see for example the recent post on this site), the firms in this market are not accused of doing anything illegal. Instead, the CC’s concern is with tacit collusion. Here, no illegal communication between firms takes place, firms simply do not compete intensely due to a mutual understanding that high prices are collectively beneficial.
Economic theory suggests that one key factor that facilitates tacit coordination is a low number of firms in the market. The UK cement market certainly meets this criteria as it is an oligopoly with just three main players plus a new entrant. The CC concluded that:
In a highly concentrated market where the product doesn’t vary, the established producers know too much about each other’s businesses and have concentrated on retaining their respective market shares rather than competing to the full.
They estimate that this cost consumers over £180m in a 3 year period.
Whilst tacit collusion is not illegal, competition authorities can try to prevent it from arising by intervening in mergers that they believe will make it more likely. In fact, the new entrant to the cement market came about due to sales required by the CC before they would allow a joint-venture between two of the main players to go ahead. Clearly the CC’s recent findings suggest that this intervention was not sufficient to ensure intense competition in the market. However, an additional tool available to the authorities in the UK is to be able to remedy harm to competition undercovered as a result of an investigation into the market. In some cases this may even involve breaking-up firms in the market (see for example the decision to force BAA to sell several airports).
When deciding on how to remedy the problem in the cement market, the CC will be keen to avoid the past mistakes of their Danish counterparts. In a famous case, in 1993 the Danish authorities attempted to increase competition in the concrete market by publishing individual sellers’ prices. The idea was that this would stimulate competition by encouraging buyers to shop around. However, evidence published here suggests that this in fact increased prices by around 15%! Why? The paper examines possible explanations and concludes that the information published by the competition authorities helped firms to monitor each others behaviour and therefore facilitated tacit coordination in the market. This is entirely consistent with economic theory which shows that another key factor which facilitates tacit coordination is market transparency.
The CC suggest that such monitoring is also possible in the GB market:
Established information channels such as price announcement letters can signal their plans, and tit-for-tat behaviour and cross-sales can be used to prevent or retaliate against any moves to disturb the overall balance between the different players in this market.
According to the above press release, the remedies the CC are considering include: the sale of capacity or plants by the leading players in the market, creation of buying groups, prohibition on price announcements and restrictions on the publication of industry level data. This suggests that the CC are well aware that reducing market transparency can play a key role in preventing coordination. It will be fascinating to, first, see what the CC opt for, then, what impact this has on competition in the industry.
Same product, same price? Competition in the UK Global Cement (22/05/13)
Competition Commission uncovers `serious problems’ in cement market Graham Huband, The Courier (22/05/13)
Competition Commission call for cement sell-off Mark Leftley, London Evening Standard (21/05/13)
Competition Commission documents
CC looks to break open cement market Competition Commission Press Release (21/5/13)
Aggregates, cement and ready-mix concrete market investigation Competition Commission core documents (various dates)
- Explain tacit collusion using a Prisoner’s dilemma game.
- Is cement the type of product where we might expect coordination to be most likely?
- Why is cement an important market in the UK economy?
- The first article above suggests that most of the management team at the new entrant came from the other main players in the market. Do you think this may significantly affect the likelihood of tacit collusion?
- Evaluate the pros and cons of the alternative remedies the CC are considering.
Last year, an academic discovered that the only two firms on Amazon selling new copies of a classic biology textbook were charging well over $1 million (plus $3.99 for shipping!). Furthermore, when he checked the next day, prices had risen even further to nearly $2.8 million! Intrigued by this strange pricing behaviour, he started to investigate the prices further.
In oligopoly markets with a small number of players, firms must make strategic decisions taking into account how they expect their rivals will react. One option in today’s online market places is for firms to use computer algorithms which automatically adjust their prices according to the prices their rivals are charging. The results of his investigation suggested that this was exactly what was causing the prices for this textbook to be so high.
One of the firms appeared to adopt a pricing rule which set its price at 0.9983 times the price of the other firm. This seems to make sense – this firm wants to undercut its rival in order to be more likely to sell its copy. However, if both firms operated under this strategy, we would expect to see prices falling over time (see also). In contrast, the strategy of the other firm appeared to be to price 1.270589 above its rival’s price. Why would it want to try to make sure it was always more expensive that its rival? The academic’s plausible explanation was that:
“…they do not actually possess the book. Rather, they noticed that someone else listed a copy for sale, and so they put it up as well – relying on their better feedback record to attract buyers. But, of course, if someone actually orders the book, they have to get it – so they have to set their price significantly higher – say 1.27059 times higher – than the price they’d have to pay to get the book elsewhere.”
Put both of these pricing rules together and prices will continuously rise over time! This was exactly what the academic observed for over a week, until human intervention appears to have returned prices to a more sensible level.
As Tim Harford discusses in his recent blog post, it had been hoped that online market places would result in very low prices because the high degree of price transparency increases competition. Clearly the prices Amazon was initially charging for the textbook didn’t support this theory and even after human intervention prices would seem to be well above marginal production costs. However, as the blog post goes on to explain, we should not necessarily expect price transparency always to lead to low prices. Economic theory shows us that in oligopoly markets, when a small number of players interact repeatedly, they may be able to collude tacitly on high prices. Furthermore, a high degree of price transparency may help such collusive behaviour because it makes it easier for firms to detect cheating by a rival.
Amazon’s $23,698,655.93 Book About Flies (SCREENSHOT) The Huffington Post, Steven Hoffer (26/04/11)
- What are the key features of competition between book sellers on Amazon?
- What price setting rule would the two firms have to use for prices to continuously fall over time? Provide an illustrative example.
- What are the pros and cons for a firm of relying on a computer algorithm to set its prices?
- How might a firm program its price setting algorithm if it wanted to collude tacitly with its rivals?
- Can you think of any other explanations for the pricing strategies that the two Amazon sellers adopted?