As Elizabeth noted in Fuelling the Political Playing Field, there has been much debate recently about energy prices in the UK. Four of the ‘Big Six’ energy companies have now announced price rises. They average 9.1% – way above the rate of consumer price inflation and even further above the average rate of wage increases. What is more, they are considerably above the rate of increase in wholesale energy prices, which, according to Ofgem, have risen by just 1.7% in the past year.
The bosses of the energy companies have appeared before the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Select Committee to answer for their large price increases. The energy companies claim that the increases are necessary to cover not only rising wholesale prices, but also green levies by the government and ‘network charges’ for investments in infrastructure. However, it is hard to see how, even taking into account all three of these possible sources of cost increases, the scale of price increases can be justified.
Another possible explanation for the price hikes is that they are partly the result of a system of transfer pricing (see). The energy industry is vertically integrated. Energy companies are not only retailers to customers, but also generators of electricity and wholesale shippers of gas. It is possible that, by the producing/shipping arms of these companies charging higher prices to their retailing arms, the retailers’ costs do indeed go up more than the wholesale market cost. The result, however, is higher profits for the producing arms of these businesses. In other words, a higher transfer price allows profits to be diverted from each company’s retailing arm to its producing arm.
This is an argument for making the wholesale market more competitive and for stopping the by-passing of this market by producing arms of companies selling directly to their retailing arms. What the companies are being accused of is an abuse of market power and possibly of colluding with each other, at least tacitly, to support the continuation of such a practice.
So is the answer a price freeze, as proposed by the Labour Party? Is it an investigation of the energy market by the Competition Commission? Or is it, at least as a first step, much more openness by the energy companies and transparency about their pricing practices? Or is it to encourage consumers to switch between energy companies, including the smaller ones, which at present account for less than 5% of energy supply? The videos, podcasts and articles consider these issues.
Webcasts and Podcasts
Energy bosses blame high bills on wholesale prices Channel 4 News, Gary Gibbon (29/10/13)
Why are energy bosses being questioned? BBC News, Stephanie McGovern (29/10/13)
Key questions Big Six energy companies must answer The Telegraph, Ann Robinson (29/10/13)
Energy bosses offer excuses for prices rises The Telegraph (29/10/13)
Energy bosses face MPs over price rises BBC News, John Moylan (29/10/13)
Energy boss ‘can’t explain’ competitors’ price hikes The Telegraph (29/10/13)
Ovo boss: Competition Commission would take too long BBC News (30/10/13)
Dale Vince: Energy market is ‘dysfunctional’ BBC Today Programme (30/10/13)
Tony Cocker: Public mistrust energy industry BBC Today Programme (30/10/13)
Ed Davey: Energy deals not just for ‘internet savvy’ BBC Today Programme (31/10/13)
Energy giants ‘charge as much as they can get away with’ The Telegraph, Peter Dominiczak (29/10/13)
UK energy markets need perestroika Financial Times (27/10/13)
Britain’s energy utilities must embrace glasnost Reuters, John Kemp (29/10/13)
Small energy firms ‘escape levies’ BBC News (30/10/13)
Is the energy market structurally flawed? BBC news, Robert Peston (30/10/13)
The energy market needs a Competition Commission investigation Fingleton Associates, John Fingleton (12/10/13)
Energy firms raised prices despite drop in wholesale costs The Guardian, Rowena Mason (29/10/13)
Only full-scale reform of our energy market will prevent endless price rises The Observer, Phillip Lee (26/10/13)
Energy Giants Blame Rising Bills On Green ‘Stealth Taxes’ Huffington Post, Asa Bennett (29/10/13)
Big Six energy firms ‘like cartel’ Belfast Telegraph (30/10/13)
Energy boss says he hasn’t done sums on green levies The Telegraph, Georgia Graham (30/10/13)
Graphic: How your energy bills have soared in ten years The Telegraph, Matthew Holehouse (30/10/13)
British energy suppliers’ explanations for price hikes just don’t add up The Guardian, Larry Elliott (31/10/13)
The 18th energy market investigation since 2001: Will this one be different? The Carbon Brief, Ros Donald (31/10/13)
Energy: Is there enough competition in the market? BBC News, Hugh Pym (26/11/13)
Information and Reports
Wholesale [electricity] market Ofgem
Wholesale [gas] market Ofgem
Response on wholesale energy costs Ofgem Press Release (29/10/13)
Response to Government’s Annual Energy Statement Ofgem Press Release (31/10/13)
Real Energy Market Reform The Labour Party
- Why may the costs of energy paid by the energy retailers to energy producers/shippers have risen more than the wholesale price?
- Explain what is meant by transfer pricing. How could transfer pricing be used to divert profits between the different divisions of a business?
- How can transfer pricing be designed by multinational companies to help them minimise their tax bills?
- Why is policing transfer pricing arrangements notoriously difficult?
- What evidence is there to show that switching between retailers by customers can help to drive retail energy prices down?
- How did the old electricity pool system differ from the current wholesale system?
- Should electricity companies be forced to pool the electricity they generate and not sell it to themselves through bilateral deals?
- Comment on the following: “The current electricity trading arrangements ‘create the very special incentive for the oligopolists. …The best of all possible worlds is where nobody invests. As supply and demand close up, the price spikes upwards, and supernormal profits result.'”
Cartels are formal collusive agreements between firms, typically to fix prices, restrict output or divide up markets. As in the case of monopoly, the lack of competition may harm consumers, who are likely to have to pay higher prices. This, as economic theory demonstrates, results in a reduction in overall welfare.
For this reason competition authorities throughout the world now impose substantial fines on firms found to be involved in collusive activities and participants also face the threat of substantial jail sentences.
One of the most famous cartels is the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). This is an agreement between 12 countries to limit their production of oil. The OPEC cartel has been in place for over 50 years. Arguably, the intergovernmental nature of the cartel and political ramifications of intervening have meant that OPEC has been able to operate free from prosecution for so long.
However, very interestingly Freedom Watch, a US public interest group founded by a former US Department of Justice lawyer, has this week filed a lawsuit against OPEC for violation of competition laws. Quoted in the above press release, Larry Klayman, the founder of Freedom Watch, says that:
These artificially-inflated crude oil prices fall hard on the backs of Americans, many of whom cannot afford to buy gasoline during these severely depressed economic times.
Furthermore, how some of the members use the profits gained from the cartel is also called into question. He also goes on to suggest that the lack of intervention from US government agencies may be because the leaders of both political parties:
… line their pockets from big oil interests and are just sitting back and not doing anything.
This is not the first time that Freedom Watch has served a lawsuit on OPEC. In 2008, at an OPEC meeting in Florida:
In a bold move in front of members of the news media, Freedom Watch Chairman and Chief Legal Counsel Larry Klayman literally jumped out from behind a line of TV cameras and microphones on Friday, October 24, to serve a complaint on an OPEC oil minister.
That complaint was unsuccessful.
It will be fascinating to see the outcome of this latest case and, if successful, the implications for OPEC – updates to appear on this blog in due course.
Profile: Opec, club of oil producing states BBC News (01/02/12)
OPEC accused of conspiracy against consumers WND World, Bob Unruh (09/05/12)
Freedom Watch Attorney Sues OPEC Oil Minister for Economic Terrorism Conservative Crusader, Jim Kouri (31/10/08)
Lawsuit brought by Freedom Watch inc. against OPEC (7/5/12)
Lawsuit brought by Freedom Watch inc. against OPEC (9/6/08)
- Why are cartels so severely punished?
- Why might it be important to punish the individuals involved as well as fine the cartel members?
- Why is fixing the price of oil particularly harmful for the economy?
- Why do you think the OPEC cartel has survived for so long?
- What do you think might be the long term implications of the lawsuit for OPEC?
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?
As part of its drive to reduce the number of ‘quangos’ (quasi-autonomous, non-governmental organisations), the government has decided to merger the two main competition authorities: the Competition Commission and the Office of Fair Trading. The aim is to streamline the investigation of mergers, restrictive practices and the abuse of monopoly power, thereby saving costs and reducing the time taken before a decision is made. At present an initial OFT investigation can take many months before a reference is then made to the Competition Commission, which then starts the process of investigation from the beginning again.
Business leaders have welcomed the announcement, seeing the merger as a means of simplifying and speeding up investigations. But will the proposal be more effective in preventing the abuse of market power and encouraging competition? The following articles look at some of the issues.
OFT merger to shake up competition regime in UK Belfast Telegraph (15/10/10)
Competition lawyers gear up for merger of OFT and Competition Commission Legal Week, Friederike Heine (14/10/10)
Labour’s antitrust system dismantled Financial Times, Michael Peel (13/10/10)
Watchdog merger that merits review Financial Times (14/10/10)
Merged competition agency divides opinion Financial Times, Michael Peel (14/10/10)
Office of Fair Trading and Competition Commission to merge Guardian, Julia Kollewe (14/10/10)
Concerns at merger of OFT and Competition Commission Telegraph, Alistair Osborne (15/10/10)
- What are the current roles and responsibilities of the OFT and the Competition Commission?
- What types of market abuse are the two agencies designed to reduce or prevent? What instruments do they have at their disposal for enforcing their findings?
- What are the arguments in favour of the merger of the two agencies?
- What are the dangers of the merger?
- How will consumer protection be provided under the new regime?
In 2003, the Office of Fair Trading launched an investigation into possible collusion between tobacco manufacturers and retailers to fix prices. The investigation sought to establish whether the firms had breached the Chapter I prohibition of the Competition Act 1998. Chapter I is concerned with Restrictive Practices.
The allegation was that two tobacco manufacturers, Imperial Tobacco and Gallaher, had colluded with 11 retailers to fix the retail prices and thereby reduce competition. The details of the allegations are given in a 2008 press release.
As a result of its investigations, the OFT has decided to impose fines of £225m. “The OFT has concluded that each manufacturer had a series of individual arrangements with each retailer whereby the retail price of a tobacco brand was linked to that of a competing manufacturer’s brand. These arrangements restricted the ability of these retailers to determine their selling prices independently and breached the Competition Act 1998.” As the Times Online article states:
The OFT said that the companies were guilty of “price-linking” or “price matching”. It said that Imps and Gallaher had come to an arrangement with each retailer that if one or other manufacturer increased or decreased prices the retailer would alter the price of the competitor brand in line, up or down accordingly – a practice known in competition law circles as “vertical price collusion”.
‘Unlawful’ tobacco pricing leads to £225m fine by OFT BBC News (16/4/10)
OFT levies £225m fine for cigarette price fixing Guardian, Richard Wray (17/4/10)
Tobacco giants face £225m fine for price-fixing Independent, Alistair Dawber
OFT case will send smoke signals Financial Times, Michael Peel, Elizabeth Rigby and Pan Kwan Yuk (16/4/10)
Imperial and Morrison set to appeal OFT fine Financial Times, Michael Peel, Pan Kwan Yuk and Elizabeth Rigby (16/4/10)
OFT faces challenge to £225m price-fixing ruling Times Online, Robert Lea (17/4/10)
OFT gets tough on tobacco as price-fixing net is cast wider Independent, Nick Clark (26/4/08)
OFT Press Release
OFT imposes £225m fine against certain tobacco manufacturers and retailers over retail pricing practices OFT Press Release (16/4/10)
- What are the allegations against the tobacco manufacturers and retailers?
- Why has the OFT judged that such behaviour is in breach of the 1988 Competition Act, and hence against the public interest?
- What are the arguments put by the tobacco companies and retailers in their defence?
- Is giving companies an amnesty if they alert the OFT an example of a prisoners’ dilemma game? What credible threats or promises may the companies have in such a situation?