The UK electricity supply market is an oligopoly. Over 95% of the market is supplied by the ‘big six’: British Gas (Centrica), EDF Energy, E.ON, npower (RWE), Scottish Power (Iberdrola) and SSE. The big six also generate much of the electricity they supply; they are vertically integrated companies. Between them they generate nearly 80% of the country’s electricity. There are a further two large generators, Drax Power Limited and GDF Suez Energy UK, making the generation industry an oligopoly of eight key players.
Ofgem, the energy market regulator, has just published a report on the wholesale electricity market, arguing that it is insufficiently liquid. This, argues the report, acts as a barrier to entry to competitor suppliers. It thus proposes measures to increase liquidity and thereby increase effective competition. Liquidity, according to the report, is:
… the ability to quickly buy or sell a commodity without causing a significant change in its price and without incurring significant transaction costs. It is a key feature of a well-functioning market. A liquid market can also be thought of as a ‘deep’ market where there are a number of prices quoted at which firms are prepared to trade a product. This gives firms confidence that they can trade when needed and will not move the price substantially when they do so.
A liquid wholesale electricity market ensures that electricity products are available to trade, and that their prices are robust. These products and price signals are important for electricity generators and suppliers, who need to trade to manage their risks. Liquidity in the wholesale electricity mark et therefore supports competition in generation and supply, which has benefits for consumers in terms of downward pressure on bills, better service and greater choice.
So how can liquidity be increased? Ofgem is proposing that the big six publish prices for two years ahead at which they are contracting to purchase electricity from generators in long-term contracts. These bilateral deals with generators are often with their own company’s generating arm. Publishing prices in this way will allow smaller suppliers to be able to seek out market opportunities. The generating companies will not be allowed to refuse to contract to supply smaller companies at the prices they are being forced to publish.
In addition, Ofgem is proposing that generators would have to sell 20% of output in the open market instead of through bilateral deals. As it is, however, some 30% of output is currently auctioned on the wholesale spot market (i.e. the market for immediate use).
But it is pricing transparency plus small suppliers being able to gain access to longer-term contracts that are the two key elements of the proposed reform.
UK utilities face having to disclose long-term deals Reuters, Karolin Schaps and Rosalba O’Brien (12/6/13)
Ofgem set to ‘break stranglehold’ in the energy market BBC News, John Moylan (12/6/13)
Ofgem plan ‘to end energy stranglehold’ BBC Today Programme, John Moylan and Ian Marlee (12/6/13)
Ofgem outlines proposals to ‘break stranglehold’ of big six energy suppliers on electricity market The Telegraph (12/6/13)
Ofgem widens investigation into alleged rigging of gas and power markets The Guardian, Terry Macalister (6/6/13)
Ofgem moves to break stranglehold of ‘big six’ energy suppliers Financial Times, Guy Chazan (12/6/13)
Ofgem to crackdown on Big Six energy suppliers in bid to cut electricity prices Independent, Simon Read (12/6/13)
Reports and data
Opening up Electricity Market to Effective Competition Ofgem Press Release (12/6/13)
Wholesale power market liquidity: final proposals for a ‘Secure and Promote’ licence condition – Draft Impact Assessment Ofgem (12/6/13)
Electricity statistics Department of Energy & Climate Change
The Dirty Half Dozen Friends of the Earth (Oct 2011)
- What barriers to entry exist in (a) the wholesale and (b) the retail market for electricity?
- Distinguish between spot and forward markets. Why is competition in forward markets particularly important for small suppliers of electricity?
- How will ‘liquidity’ be increased by the measures Ofgem is proposing?
- To what extent does vertical integration in the energy industry benefit consumers of electricity?
- What is a price reporting agency (PRA)? What anti-competitive activities have been taking place in the short-term energy market and why may PRAs not be ‘fit for purpose’?
- Do you think that the measures Ofgem is proposing will ensure that the big generators trade fairly with small suppliers? Explain.
- What are the dangers in the proposals for the large generators?
Comet, Peacocks, Woolworths, JJB, Jessops and now HMV – they all have one thing in common. The recession has hit them so hard that they entered administration. HMV is the latest high street retailer to bring in the administrators, despite insisting that it does have a future on the UK’s high streets. With debts of £176m and huge competition from online retailers, the future of HMV is very uncertain.
Over the past decades, companies such as Amazon, ebay, LoveFilm, Netflix and apple have emerged providing very stiff competition to the last remaining high street seller of music and DVDs. People have been turning more and more to the internet to do their shopping, with cheaper prices and greater choice. The speed of delivery, which in the past may have been a disadvantage of buying from somewhere like Amazon, is now barely an obstacle and these substitute companies have created a difficult environment for high street retailers to compete in. Despite going into administration, it’s not necessarily the end of the much-loved HMV. Its Chief Executive said:
We remain convinced we can find a successful business outcomes. We want to make sure it remains on the high street … We know our customers fell the same way.
While the recession has undoubtedly affected sales at HMV, is this the main reason for its demise or are other factors more relevant? As discussed, online retailers have taken over the DVD and music industry and with downloading increasing in popularity and CD/DVDs on sale in numerous locations, including supermarket chains, HMV has felt the competitive pressure and its place on the high street has come into question. As Neil Saunders, the Managing Director of Conlumino said:
By our own figures, we forecast that by the end of 2015 some 90.4 per cent of music and film sales will be online. The bottom line is that there is no real future for physical retail in the music sector.
Further to this, prices have been forced downwards and HMV, having to pay high fixed costs to retain their place on the high streets, have been unable to compete and remain profitable. Another contributing factor could be an outdated management structure, which has not responded to the changing times. Whatever the cause, thousands of jobs have been put at risk. Even if buyers are found, some store closures by the administrators, Deloitte, seem inevitable. Customer gift vouchers have already become worthless and further losses to both workers and customers seem likely. It is thought that there will be many interested buyers and huge support from suppliers, but the former is likely to remain a relatively secretive area for some time.
This latest high street disaster will undoubtedly raise many questions. One theory about recovery from a recession looks at the need for many businesses to go under until the fittest are left and there is sufficient scope for new businesses to emerge.
Could it be that the collapse of companies such as Woolworths, HMV, Comet, Jessops and Blockbuster is an essential requirement for economic recovery? Or was the recession irrelevant for HMV? Was its collapse an inevitable consequence of the changing face of Britain’s high streets and if so, what does the future hold for the high street retailers? The following articles consider the demise of HMV.
HMV: a visual history BBC News (15/1/13)
Chief executive says ‘HMV still has a place on the high street’, as customers are told their gift vouchers are worthless Independent, James Thompson (15/1/13)
Potential buyers circle stricken HMV Financial Times, Andrea Felsted (15/1/13)
HMV and independents to urged to work together to save in-store music market BBC News, Clive Lindsay (15/1/13)
HMV record chain was besest by digital downloads and cheap DVDs The Guardian (15/1/13)
The death of traditional retailers like HMV started when we caught on to one-click and the joy of owning DVDs wore thin Independent, Grace Dent (15/1/13)
HMV shoppers: ‘I’m disappointed, but it’s understandable why they went bust The Guardian, James Brilliant (15/1/13)
HMV: Record labels could take HMV back to its 1920 roots The Telegraph, Graham Ruddick (15/1/13)
HMV’s future seen as handful of stores and website Reuters, Neil Maidment and James Davey (15/1/13)
HMV leaves social gap in high street BBC News, Robert Plummer (15/1/13)
Is there good news in HMV’s collapse? BBC News, Robert Peston (15/1/13)
Is it game over for UK retail? The Guardian, Larry Elliott (18/1/13)
High Street retailers: Who has been hit hardest? BBC News (16/1/13)
- What are the main reasons behind the collapse of HMV?
- Use a diagram to illustrate the impact the companies such as Amazon and Tesco have had on costs and prices in the entertainment industry.
- Has the value we place on owning DVDs truly changed or have other factors led to larger purchases of online entertainment?
- Why is online retail providing such steep competition to high street retailers?
- Explain why it can be argued that economic recovery will only take place after a certain number of businesses have gone into administration.
- To what extent do you think HMV’s collapse is due to its failure to adapt to changing social circumstances?
- Briefly outline the wider economic implications of the collapse of a company such as HMV. Think about managers, employees, suppliers, customers and other competitors, as well as other high street retailers.
- In which market structure would you place the entertainment industry? Explain your answer. Has this contributed to the demise of HMV?
Academic research is encouraged by universities. Indeed, the number and quality of research publications is the most important criterion for promotion in many universities.
Periodically university research in the UK is publicly assessed. The latest assessment is known as the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and will be completed in 2014. Most research that will be considered by the REF is published in peer-reviewed journals. Most of these journals are subscription based. Universities pay large amounts of money in subscriptions.
In recent years there has been much criticism by both academics and universities about the high cost of such subscriptions. In a movement dubbed the Academic Spring, pressure has mounted for journal articles to be made available free of charge – i.e. on open access.
The government too has been concerned that the results of publicly-funded research has been disappearing behind ‘paywalls’ and hence not available free to people outside the universities which subscribe to such journals. Indeed, no single university can afford licences for all the 25,000 peer-reviewed journals currently being published. As a result, the government set up a committee under the chair of Professor Janet Finch to examine alternative ways of making research more accessible. The committee has just published its report.
It advocates an expansion of open-access journals:
The principle that the results of research that has been publicly funded should be freely accessible in the public domain is a compelling one, and fundamentally unanswerable…
Instead of relying on subscription revenues provided by or on behalf of readers, most [open-access journals] charge a fee to authors…before an article is published. Access for readers is then free of charge, immediately on publication, and with very few restrictions on use and re-use.
Under this model, universities would essentially pay to have their academics’ articles published rather than paying to purchase the journal. Alternatively, research councils could fund the publication of articles based on research already funded by them.
Many people go further. They argue that authors ought to be able to have their published research in any journal made freely available, after an embargo period, through their university’s website.
So is the current pricing model the best for encouraging research and for disseminating its findings? Or is open access a better model – and if so, of what form? Or would it discourage publishers and lead, in the end, to less being published or to a less rigorous peer review process? The questions are ones of pricing, incentives, choices and investment – the questions that economists are qualified to consider.
Open access may require funds to be rationed Times Higher Education, Paul Jump (21/6/12)
Set science free from publishers’ paywalls New Scientist, Stephen Curry (19/6/12)
Scientists must make research an open book Independent, Martin Hickman (18/6/12)
Report calls on government to back open access science BBC News, Pallab Ghosh (19/6/12)
Open access is the future of academic publishing, says Finch report Guardian, Alok Jha (19/6/12)
Open access to science – its implications discussed in UK raport ZME Science (19/6/12)
UK move to ‘open access’ in publishing Phys.Org, Justin Norrie (20/6/12)
Finch Group Report: Overview Research Information Network (June 2012)
Finch Group Report: Executive Summary Research Information Network (June 2012)
Finch Group Report: Full Report Research Information Network (June 2012)
- Explain the difference between the ‘gold’ and ‘green’ models of open-access journal article publishing?
- What externalities are involved in journal publication? What are the implications of this for socially efficient pricing?
- How could journal publication be made profitable under an open-access system?
- What are the incentive effects for (a) academics and (b) universities of ranking journals? Does the REF, whereby research articles are judged on their own merits, overcome problems of ranking journals?
- Does the existence of journal rankings allow the top journals in each discipline to maintain a position of market power? How is this likely to impact on journal or article pricing?
- How would university finances be affected by a move towards gold open access journals (a) in the short term; (b) in the long term?
- Would it be in universities’ interests to produce their own open-access journals?
Centrica, owners of British Gas, has warned that electricity and gas prices in the UK are set to rise in the autumn. Centrica blames this on the expected rise in the costs of wholesale gas and other non-energy inputs.
One of the other ‘big six’ energy suppliers, E.On, has responded by saying that it will not raise energy prices this year. Whether it will raise prices after 1 Jan next year remains to be seen.
Last autumn, household energy prices rose substantially: between 15.4% and 18% for gas and between 4.5% and 16% for electricity. This spring, in response to lower wholesale energy prices, suppliers cut prices for either electricity or gas (but not both) by around 5%.
The government and various pressure groups are encouraging consumers to use price comparison sites to switch to a cheaper supplier. The problem with this is that supplier A may be cheaper than supplier B one month, but B cheaper than A the next. Nevertheless, switching does impose some degree of additional competitive pressure on suppliers.
More powerful pressure could be applied by ‘collective switching’. This is where a lot of people switch via an intermediary company, which sources a deal from an energy supplier. This collective buying is a form of countervailing power to offset the oligopoly power of the suppliers. Such schemes are being encouraged by the Energy Minister, Ed Davey.
The other approach, apart from doing nothing, is for Ofgem, the energy regulator, to impose tough conditions on pricing. But at present, Ofgem’s approach has been to try to make the market more competitive (see also), rather than regulating prices.
British Gas owner Centrica warns of higher energy bills BBC News (11/5/12)
E.ON to keep residential energy prices unchanged in 2012 Reuters, Adveith Nair (14/5/12)
E.ON promises to hold energy prices for 5million customers in 2012 This is Money, Tara Evans (14/5/12)
British Gas owner Centrica feels cold blast from critics ShareCast, John Harrington (11/5/12)
Gas and electricity price battle lines drawn BBC News (14/5/12)
Taking on the energy giants: The co-operative insurgency gains ground Left Foot Forward, Daniel Elton (11/5/12)
Group Energy Buying hits the UK Headlines Spend Matters UK/Europe, Peter Smith (11/5/12)
Think tank calls for competition to break Big Six rip-off Energy Live News, Tom Gibson (30/4/12)
Collective switching will not fix the UK’s broken energy market Guardian, Reg Platt (27/4/12)
Make your own small switch for cheaper energy The Telegraph, Rosie Murray-West (14/5/12)
- What are the barriers to entry in the electricity supply market?
- How competitive is the retail energy market at present?
- To what extent do price comparison sites put pressure on energy companies to reeduce prices or limit price increases?
- What scope is there for collective buying of gas and electricity from the six energy suppliers by (a) households; (b) firms?
- Assess Ofgem’s package of proposals for a simpler and more competitive energy market.
Fuel prices at German petrol stations fluctuate wildly – by up to €0.14 per day. They are also often changed several times per day. In morning rush hours, when demand is less elastic, prices may shoot up, only to drop again once people are at work.
But is this a sign of healthy competition? Critics claim the opposite: that it’s a sign of the oligopoly power of the oil companies. More than two-thirds of Germany’s petrol stations are franchises of five big oil companies: BP/Aral, Esso, Jet, Shell and Total. These five companies directly control the prices at the pumps. According to the Der Spiegel article below, oil companies:
have sophisticated computer systems that allow them to precisely control, right down to the minute, when they increase their prices nationwide, and by how many cents. The prices are not set by the individual franchise holders. Instead, they are centrally controlled – for example, in the town of Bochum, at the headquarters of Aral, a BP subsidiary that is the market leader in Germany.
The price manager merely presses a button and price signs immediately change at all 2,391 Aral service stations in Germany. All filling stations are electronically linked with Bochum via a dedicated network called Rosi. After each price increase, they watch closely to see how the competition reacts and whether they follow suit.
… If the competitor’s prices are significantly cheaper, the Aral franchise holder can, with the help of Rosi, apply for permission to reduce the prices again.
Not only do the oil companies control the prices at the pumps, but they observe closely, via their franchise holders, the actions of their rivals, and then respond in ways which critics claim is collusive rather than competitive. The problem has become worse with the introduction of incentives to the franchise owners of additional commission if they exceed the price of their competitors within the local area. This has the effect of ratcheting prices up.
The sophisticated pricing strategies, with prices adjusted frequently according to price elasticity of demand, are making it very hard for independent operators to compete.
In response, the German Cartel Office has launched an investigation into the oil companies and in particular into the issues of collusion and frequent price changes and how these impact on independent operators.
German anti-trust authority probes alleged fuel cartel Deutsche Welle (4/4/12)
German antitrust watchdog to probe oil majors-paper Reuters, Ludwig Burger (3/4/12)
Oil giants probed over claims they rigged petrol prices in Germany The Telegraph, Nathalie Thomas (4/4/12)
BP, Exxon, Esso, Jet, Shell and Total in Germany Price Fix Probe International Business Times (9/4/12)
German cartel office probes petrol company pricing MarketWatch (4/4/12)
Kartellverfahren gegen fünf Mineralölkonzerne (in German) Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Helmut Bünder and Manfred Schäfers (4/4/12)
Crazy gas prices driving German consumers mad msnbc, Andy Eckardt (3/4/12)
Big Oil’s Strategy for Jacking Up Gas Prices Der Spiegel, Alexander Jung and Alexander Neubacher (5/4/12)
- What the features of the German road fuel oligopoly?
- Why does the price elasticity of demand for petrol and diesel vary with the time of day? Is it likely to vary from one week to another and, if so, why?
- In what ways have the actions of the big five oil companies been against the interests of the independent petrol station operators?
- Consider the alternatives open to the German Federal Cartel Office for making the market more competitive.
- Would it be a good idea for the big five German companies to be forced to adopt the Western Australian system of price changes?