The energy market is complex and is a prime example of an oligopoly: a few dominant firms in the market and interdependence between the suppliers. Over 95% of the market is supplied by the so-called ‘big six’ and collectively they generate 80% of the country’s electricity. There are two further large generators (Drax Power Limited and GDF Suez Energy UK), meaning the electricity generation is also an oligopoly.
This sector has seen media attention for some years, with criticisms about the high profits made by suppliers, the high prices they charge and the lack of competition. Numerous investigations have taken place by Ofgem, the energy market regulator, and the latest development builds on a simple concept that has been a known problem for decades: barriers to entry. It is very difficult for new firms to enter this market, in particular because of the vertically integrated nature of the big six. Not only are they the suppliers of the energy, but they are also the energy generators. It is therefore very difficult for new suppliers to enter the market and access the energy that is generated.
Ofgem’s new plans will aim to reduce the barriers to entry in the market and thus make it easier for new firms to enter and act as effective competitors. The big six energy generators are vertically integrated companies and thus effectively sell their energy to themselves, whereas other suppliers have to purchase their energy before they can sell it. The regulator’s plans aim to improve transparency by ensuring that wholesale power prices are published two years in advance, thus making it easier for smaller companies to buy energy and then re-sell it. Andrew Wright, the Chief Executive of Ofgem, said:
These reforms give independent suppliers, generators and new entrants to the market, both the visibility of prices, and [the] opportunities to trade, [that] they need to compete with the largest energy suppliers…Almost two million customers are with independent suppliers, and we expect these reforms to help these suppliers and any new entrants to grow.
Although such reforms will reduce the barriers to entry in the market and thus should aim to increase competition and hence benefit consumers, many argue that the reforms don’t go far enough and will have only minor effects on the competitiveness in the market. There are still calls for further reforms in the market and a more in-depth investigation to ensure that consumers are really getting the best deal. The following articles consider this ongoing saga and this highly complex market.
Ofgem ramps up scrutiny of Big six accounts Telegraph, Denise Roland (27/2/14)
Energy firms told to trade fairly with smaller rivals BBC News (26/2/14)
Energy regulator Ofgem force trading rules on ‘big six’ suppliers Financial Times, Andy Sharman (26/2/14)
Ed Davey calls on Ofgem to investigate energy firms’ gas profits The Guardian, Sean Farrell and Jennifer Rankin (10/2/14)
UK forces big power companies to reveal wholesale prices Reuters (26/2/14)
Watchdog unveils new rules on Big six energy prices Independent, Tom Bawden (26/2/14)
Energy Bills: New rules to boost competition Sky News, (26/2/14)
- What are the characteristics of an oligopoly?
- Explain the reason why the vertically integrated nature of the big six energy companies creates a barrier to the entry of new firms.
- What are the barriers to entry in (a) the electricity supply market and (b) the electricity generating market?
- What action has Ofgem suggested to increase competition in the market? How effective are the proposals likely to be/
- Why is there a concern about liquidity in the market?
- If barriers to entry are reduced, how will this affect competition in the market? How will consumers be affected?
- Why are there suggestions that Ofgem’s proposals don’t go far enough?
The model of demand and supply is one of the first diagrams that any student of Economics will see and it’s a very important model. We can apply it to a multitude of markets and understand how market prices for products and services are determined. One such market is that of wine, where a recent report suggests that wine is in short supply. Bad news for everyone!
The price of wine is set by the interact of demand and supply. As with any market, numerous factors will affect how much wine is demanded at any price. Since 1996, global consumption of wine has been on the increase: for many, wine is a luxury good and thus as income rises, so does consumption. With the emergence of markets, such as China and subsequent income growth, consumption has risen. Furthermore, tastes have changed such that wine is becoming an increasingly desirable drink. So, this has all led to the demand curve shifting to the right.
However, at the same time, the supply of wine has been falling, largely the result of ‘ongoing vine pull and poor weather’ across Europe. European production has fallen by around 10% over the past year and although production in other countries has been rising, overall production is still not sufficient to match the growth in demand.
So, what’s the result of this high growth in demand combined with the decline in supply? A shortage of wine. A report by analysts at Morgan Stanley suggests that the global wine shortage was some 300m cases in 2012. But, more importantly what is the effect of this shortage? When demand for a product exceeds the supply, the market mechanism will push up the price. As stocks of wine continue to be depleted and consumption of wine keeps rising, the only outcome is a rise in the price of a bottle and a crate of wine.
Concerns are also being raised about the future of prices of some of our other favourite luxury products, such as chocolate, goats cheese and olives. In each case, it’s all about demand and supply and how these curves interact with each other. The following articles consider the prices of some of these products.
Wine shortage: the top five wines to drink – before they run out The Telegraph, Susy Atkins (30/10/13)
World faces global wine shortage – report BBC News (30/10/13)
Luxury food shortage scares – should we believe the warnings? The Guardian, Emine Saner (5/11/13)
The global wine ‘shortage’ Napa Valley, Dan Berger (8/11/13)
Global Shortage of wine beckons Independent, Felicitiy Morse (30/10/13)
The global wine shortage is about to get worse (if you like Bordeaux) TIME World, David Stout (6/11/13)
Have no fears about a world wine shortage – the glass is still half fulll The Telegraph, Victoria Moore (31/10/13)
Drink it while you can, as study points to looming wine shortage Associated Press (31/10/13)
Don’t waste a drop! Wine prices to rise as demand grows Mail Online, Amie Keeley (31/10/13)
- Use a demand and supply diagram to illustrate how the market price for wine (or any other product) is determined.
- Why does the demand curve for wine slope downwards and the supply curve of wine slope upwards?
- Which factors will affect (a) the demand and (b) the supply of wine?
- One the diagram you drew in question, illustrate a shortage of wine. How will the price mechanism work to restore equilibrium?
- Why does the Morgan Stanley report suggest that a wine shortage might emerge?
- What suggestions are there that there is no wine shortage?
No matter the product or service, price is always a key factor and never more so than in tough economic times. In most cases, prices are allowed to be determined by the forces of demand and supply, which gives the equilibrium price. However, in some cases, the government may choose to intervene with a price control, for example rent controls and the national minimum wage. Another market where there is also regulation is the airline industry and the Civil Aviation Authority have recently been criticized by Heathrow Airport for its price control plan.
Whenever we go on holiday, the price we pay for an airline ticket will depend in part on the airport we are taking off from and landing at, as they will charge the airline for landing fees, security, terminals etc. Heathrow airport had proposed that annual rises to its tariffs charged to airlines would increase by 4.6% above RPI inflation. However, this plan has been rejected by the CAA, which has said that the annual tariff rise between 2014 and 2018 should not be above the RPI. Though Heathrow are criticizing the CAA about this restriction, it is an improvement from the initial proposal which would have capped price rises at the RPI minus 1.3%.
Controversy has naturally been created, with the CAA arguing that such price controls are needed to keep prices down and thus benefit consumers and retain the competitiveness of Heathrow airport. But, in contrast, Heathrow has argued that such a cap will put its competitive position under pressure and will risk future investment in the UK. But this isn’t the only criticism of the CAA. Airlines aren’t happy with the ruling either, arguing that the CAA has bowed to the pressure of Heathrow. The contrasting positions of the CAA, Heathrow and airlines are evident in the following quotes, firstly from the Chairwoman of the CAA:
The proposals will put an end to over a decade of prices rising faster than inflation at Heathrow. Tackling the upward drift in Heathrow’s prices is essential to safeguard its globally competitive position. The challenge for Heathrow is to maintain high levels of customer service while reducing costs. We are confident this is possible and that our proposals create a positive climate for further capital investment, in the passenger interest.
Secondly, from Heathrow’s Chief Executive:
This proposal is the toughest Heathrow has ever faced. The CAA’s settlement could have serious and far-reaching consequences for passengers and airlines at Heathrow … We want to continue to improve Heathrow for passengers. Instead, the CAA’s proposals risk not only Heathrow’s competitive position but the attractiveness of the UK as a centre for international investment. We will now carefully consider our investment plans before responding fully to the CAA.
And finally from the IAG Chief Executive, who said:
[The CAA] neglected its new primary statutory duty to further the interests of passengers by endorsing a settlement that allows the UK’s monopoly hub to ignore its inefficiencies and over-reward investors by imposing excessive charges … It is a bad day for customers who have been let down by the CAA.
Any price rise from the airports will be passed on to airlines and these in turn will translate into higher prices for customers. However, is there any truth to Heathrow’s claims that investment will be adversely impacted? As costs rise, profit margins and profit will fall, unless the revenue generated can increase. Price controls restrict the amount that prices can rise and thus unless demand increases by a significant margin, profits will decline. With lower profits, there will be less money for investment and arguably the service that customers face will also decline. However, the CAA suggests that Heathrow will be able to cut its costs and thus protect investment into the future, while retaining its competitive position globally by charging lower prices to airlines. This is unlikely to be the end of the journey, but for the moment, the CAA appears to have put its foot down. The following articles consider the battleground between the CAA and Heathrow.
Regulation in the passenger’s interest, support investment and driving competition The Civil Aviation Authority (3/10/13)
Passengers at Heathrow ‘face £1bn fares hike’ Independent, Matthew Beard (4/10/13)
Heathrow airport attacks regulator’s price control plan BBC News (3/10/13)
CAA proposed Heathrow charges rise in line with inflation The Telegraph, Rebecca Clancy (13/10/13)
Passengers face fare increases as Heathrow and Gatwick are allowed to up landing fees Mail Online (3/10/13)
Heathrow and airlines enraged by CAA price proposals The Telegraph, Alistair Osborne (3/10/13)
Heathrow attacks Civil Aviation Authority over airport charges Financial Times, Andrew Parker (3/10/13)
BAA considers life outside Heathrow as CAA backtracks on charges The Guardian, Gwyn Topham (3/10/13)
Heathrow charge plan disappoints all round Wall Street Journal, Peter Evans (3/10/13)
- What is the role of a regulator?
- Explain how the price control outlined by the CAA will affect Heathrow.
- If Heathrow is unable to cut costs, what is the likely effect? Using a diagram illustrate the impact on profitability if costs (a) can be reduced and (b) cannot be reduced.
- Why are the CAA being criticised by airlines and airports?
- How will customers be affected by Heathrow’s planned price rises and the CAA’s proposal?
- ‘Regulation in the airlines industry is essential to retain competitiveness.’ Evaluate the validity of this statement.
For all households, energy is considered an essential item. As electricity and gas prices rise and fall, many of us don’t think twice about turning on the lights, cooking a meal or turning on the heating. We may complain about the cost and want prices brought down, but we still pay the bills. But, is there anything that can be done about high energy prices? And if there is, should anything be done?
The worlds of politics and economics are closely linked and Ed Miliband’s announcement of his party’s plans to impose a 20-month freeze on energy prices if elected in 2015 showed this relationship to be as strong as ever. The price freeze would certainly help average households reduce their cost of living by around £120 and estimates suggest businesses would save £1800 over this 20 month period. The energy companies have come in for a lot of criticism, in particular relating to their control of the industry. The sector is dominated by six big companies – your typical oligopoly, and this makes it very difficult for new firms to enter. Thus competition is restricted. But is a price freeze a good policy?
Part of the prices we pay go towards investment in cleaner and more environmentally friendly sources of energy. Critics suggest that any price freeze would deprive the energy sector of much needed investment, meaning our energy bills will be higher in the future. Furthermore, some argue this price freeze suggests that Labour is abandoning its environmental policy. Energy shortages have been a concern, especially with the cold weather the UK experienced a few years ago. This issue may reappear with price freezes. As Angela Knight, from Energy UK, suggests:
Freezing the bill may be superficially attractive, but it will also freeze the money to build and renew power stations, freeze the jobs and livelihoods of the 600,000-plus people dependent on the energy industry and make the prospect of energy shortages a reality, pushing up the prices for everyone.
There is a further concern and that is that large energy companies will be driven from the UK. This thought was echoed by many companies, in particular the British Gas owner Centrica, commenting that:
If prices were to be controlled against a background of rising costs it would simply not be economically viable for Centrica to continue to operate and far less to meet the sizeable investment challenge that the industry is facing…The impact of such a policy would be damaging for the country’s long-term prosperity and for our customers.
Share prices naturally fluctuate with global events and a political announcement such as this was inevitably going to cause an effect. But, perhaps the effect was not expected to be as big as the one we saw. Share prices for Centrica and SSE fell following the announcement – perhaps no great shock – but then they continued to fall. The market value tumbled by 5% and share prices kept falling. This has led to Ed Miliband being accused of ‘economic vandalism’ by a major shareholder of Centrica, which is hardly surprising, given the estimated cost of such a price freeze would be £4.5 billion.
The economic implications of such a move are significant. The announcement itself has caused massive changes in the FTSE and if such a move were to go ahead if Labour were elected in 2015, there would be serious consequences. While families would benefit, at least in the short term, there would inevitably be serious implications for businesses, the environmental policy of the government, especially relating to investment and the overall state of the economy. The following articles consider the aftermath of Ed Miliband’s announcement.
Miliband stands firm in battle over fuel bills plan The Guardian, Patrick Wintour and Terry Macalister (25/9/13)
Michael Fallon calls Miliband’s energy prices pledge ‘dangerous’ Financial Times, Elizabeth Rigby and Jim Pickard (26/9/13)
Britain’s labour treads narrow path between populism and prudence Reuters (26/9/12)
Ed Miliband’s radical reforms will make the energy market work for the many Independent (26/9/13)
Has Labour fallen out of love with Business? BBC News (26/9/13)
Top Centrica shareholder Neil Woodford accuses Labour leader Ed Miliband of economic vandalism The Telegraph, Kamal Ahmed (25/9/13)
Centrica and SSE slide after Labour price freeze pledge The Guardian (26/9/13)
Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze pledge is a timely but risky move The Guardian, Rowena Mason (24/9/13)
- Why are energy prices such a controversial topic?
- How are energy prices currently determined? Use a diagram to illustrate your answer. By adapting this diagram, illustrate the effect of a price control being imposed. How could it create an energy shortage? What impact would this have after the 20-month price freeze
- Why would there be adverse effects on energy companies if prices were frozen and costs increased? Use a diagram to illustrate the problem and use your answer to explain why energy companies might leave the UK.
- How would frozen energy prices help households and businesses?
- Why were share prices in Centrica and SSE adversely affected?
- Is there an argument for regulating other markets with price controls?
- Why is there such little competition in the energy sector?
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?