As Adam Smith noted in the late 18th Century, ‘..people of the same trade seldom meet together…without..the conversation ending in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.’ (Wealth of Nations, 1776). This view dominated Classical and Neo-Classical theory for 150 years. The Neo-Classical analysis of firms is deeply rooted in the belief that monopolies are inherently harmful, and that a merger between competitive firms will reduce competition and increase monopoly power. The Neo-Classical view was that monopolies would cause a misallocation of scarce resources, with prices rising well above competitive prices. In short, regulatory authorities are likely to be suspicious of the motives behind meetings of firms, alliances and formal mergers, and closely monitor and control the anti-competitive behaviour of monopolies.
The modern approach
The modern view is more pragmatic, and recognises that monopolies and mergers may best be judged on a case by case basis, and it should not be assumed that they are against the public’s interest. The modern approach accepts that monopolies can create economic benefits as well as costs, including the benefits of economies of scale, innovation and dynamic efficiency, and export earnings.
Competition policy in the UK has evolved over time, and is now in-line with European Competition policy.
Relevant UK legislation
The Competition Act 1998
The Competition Act 1998 prohibits a number of activities by firms, including:
- The formation and operation of cartels.
- The abuse of a firm’s dominant position on a national or local level.
- Concerted practice, such as firms colluding instead of competing. For example:
- Fixing price, such as a number of book publishers fixing the minimum resale price of books sold by separate book stores, or raising price together, or fixing output.
- Fixing terms of business, such as agreeing to the same delivery times or terms of payment.
- ‘Carving up’ a market, which means that firms agree to split up a market and not compete in the different sectors of the market.
The Enterprise Act 2002
This Act amended the Competition Act and strengthened the power of the regulators, especially in terms of detecting and punishing abuse of market dominance and cartel-like behaviour. The main provisions of the Act were:
- Assessment of mergers to be less influenced by politicians and more independent
- New powers for regulators to investigate markets, such as the power to use covert surveillance.
- Criminalisation of cartels, with the UK regulators becoming tougher than those in the EU.
- Disqualification of directors for breach of the competition rules.
- Consumer groups can complain about uncompetitive practices.
There was a shift of emphasis from considering the public interest criteria to a more narrow concern regarding the effect of behaviour on competition.
Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013
This Act established the new Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) which was launched on 1st April 2014. The CMA will combine the current competition and consumer protection function of the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) and the Competition Commission (CC).
Regulatory structure in the UK
In the UK, the regulation of firms and promotion of competition is undertaken by the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) which replaced the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) in 2016, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), and the Competition Commission.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS)
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) was created in 2009 (and replaced in 2016) with the merger of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR), and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS).
The main objectives of BIS were:
- To promote free and fair markets, with increased competition
- To increase productivity and improve skills
- To promote science and innovation, and promote the commercial exploitation of knowledge
- To create the right conditions for business success
- To improve economic performance of the UK regions, and to reduce the gap in growth rates between the regions
The Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) was set up in July 2016, following a government restructure.
The new department has taken over responsibilities from its predecessor, the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS).
Read more on BEIS.
The Office of Fair Trading (OFT)
The OFT is an independent body whose main role is to try to ensure that markets work effectively. As its name suggests, it looks at unfair and uncompetitive trading. It has separate divisions (offices) that regulate the privatised utilities, including Ofgem, Ofwat, and Ofcom. It is the main referring body, referring cases to the Competition Commission.
The OFT’s main objectives are:
- To identify and put right trading practices which are against the consumer’s interests.
- To regulate the provision of consumer credit.
- To investigate anti-competitive practices, including restrictive practices, such as manufacturers forcing retailers to fix a minimum price.
- To investigate abuse of market power, when a firm has a dominant position, and cartel-like behaviour.
- To help promote market structures which encourage competitive behaviour.
It can impose fines of up to 10% of turnover when necessary, and in 2004 the OFT gained new powers to use covert surveillance to investigate anti-competitive practices.
The OFT’s sub-offices were established to regulate the privatised utilities and encourage competition.
The Competition Commission
In terms of mergers, the Commission must assess whether a merger will reduce competition. After investigating it may recommend that the merger:
- Goes ahead
- Is prohibited
- Is allowed to go ahead, but with modifications
In deciding which option to implement, the Commission will consider whether, after the merger, competition is maintained.
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA)
Launched in April 2014, the CMA is now the UK’s key competition regulator, combining the competition elements of the OFT and Competition commission.
Read more on the CMA.
See also: The UK’s Competition Network
Policy towards mergers
In the UK mergers are assessed in terms of the specific circumstances of each case.
Substantial Lessening of Competition (SLC)
There are several considerations when making an assessment of a merger – the most important of which is whether there will be a substantial lessening of competition (SLC). This refers to the potential loss of competition which may result from a merger.
There are considered to be three main categories where a merger can lead to a lessening of competition:
Unilateral effects arise when a single combined firm is able to raise prices in a profitable way given the lessening of competition that follows the removal of a rival. The closeness of the firms as substitutes for each other will clearly have a bearing on the assessment of unilateral effects.
Co-ordinated effects occur when several firms are more likely to jointly increase their price. For example, firms may carve-up a market in a geographical way, and with less competition raise their price. In this instance production may be limited or innovation stifled. Tacit collusion is example of a co-ordinated effect.
Finally, vertical effects are associated with vertical integration and may arise when a merger strengthens the ability of the merged firm to exert its power in the market.
The counterfactual situation
In deciding whether a merger will lead to a substantial lessening of competition the OFT or CC will consider the likely foreseeable competitive situation that would have arisen if the merger had not gone ahead – called the counterfactual. For example, it may be likely that a new firm would have entered the market were it not for the merger. It is also possible that one of the merged firms may have left the market had the merger not gone ahead. The authorities (the OFT and CC) may also consider, as part of the counterfactual analysis, whether a different bidder would have come forward.
Regulation of privatised utilities
Many of the privatised utilities were also natural monopolies requiring regulation. With a natural monopoly, the role of the regulator is to act as a surrogate competitor to the privatised, natural monopoly. In doing this the regulator can make up for the missing contestability found with natural monopolies.
Regulators have a number of options, including:
Regulators can set price controls and formulae, often called price capping. This means forcing the monopolist to charge a price below profit maximising price. For example, in the UK the RPI – ‘X’ formula has been widely used to regulate the prices of the privatised utilities. In the formula, the RPI (Retail Price Index) represents the current inflation rate. ‘X’ is a figure which is set at the expected efficiency gain which the regulator believes would have existed had the firm operated in a competitive market. However, there is a dilemma with price controls – price-capping results in lower prices, but lower prices also deter entry into the market. In the case of water supply, Ofwat, the regulator, was more generous given the need for capital investment in infrastructure.
The formula for water is RPI + K + U, where K is the price limit, and U is any unused ‘credit’ from previous years. For example, if K is 3% in 2010, but a water company only ‘uses’ 2%, it can add on the unused 1% to K in 2011. Regulators may remove price caps if they judge that competition in the market has increased sufficiently, as in the case of OFCOM who removed BT‘s price cap in 2006.
One disadvantage of the price-cap formula is that price limits only apply to variable charges, and do apply to connect charges or other fixed charges.
The energy cap
In the UK the energy regulator, Ofgem, has used price capping for individuals on pre-pay meters as a safeguard against excessively high prices, and is extending this (October, 2017) to cover the much criticised ‘standard variable rate tariff’ (SVT), which individuals default to once their fixed term contract comes to an end.
Read more on the energy price cap.
Critics of this cap argue that it may make the energy market less competitive as it will remove a key incentive for new entrants. Currently, with a relatively high SVT, new entrants can enter the market to compete for those customers who have already, or are about to, come-off the fixed rate and move to the higher SVT. With a capped SVT the argument is that the market is harder to enter and hence less competitive, and contestable.
An alternative to price-cap regulation is rate-of-return regulation. Rate of return regulation, which was developed in the USA, is a method of regulating the average price of private or privatised public utilities, such as water, electricity and gas supply. The system, which employs accounting rules for the calculation of operating costs, allows firms to cover these costs, and earn a ‘fair’ rate of return on capital invested. The ‘fair’ rate is based on typical rates of return which might be expected in a competitive market.
However, rate-of-return regulation is often criticised because, unlike in an actual competitive market, a reduction in costs will not improve its situation, and hence there is little incentive to control costs. In fact, it will be to the advantage of the monopolist to allow costs to inflate because prices will then be allowed to rise. This would not happen in a competitive market because demand would form a constraint against such price rises.
A further general weakness is that regulators are unlikely to have perfect knowledge about the costs of production of the monopolist, and cannot make an effective judgement about whether the costs are being controlled effectively, or not.
Regulators could chose to impose a windfall tax on excessive profits, which would encourage the monopolist to reinvest its profits, rather than distribute them to shareholders. This tax would not alter the output of the firm; hence consumers would not suffer from falling output.
Regulators can introduce yardstick competition, such as setting punctuality targets for train operating companies (TOCs) based on the best-performing European train operators. It is also possible to split up a service into regional sections to compare the performance of one region against another. This is applied in the UK to both water and rail.
Forcing competitive tendering
In an attempt to make public utilities and government departments more efficient – especially local government – compulsory competitive tendering (CCT) was introduced in the UK during the 1980s. This initiative forced publicly funded organisations to seek bids from a range of suppliers, hence introducing competition into purchasing process. The objective was to cut costs and improve efficiency in the supply of public services.
Critics have argued that while competitive tendering may have increased efficiency in many areas, quality may have been driven down, and additional costs may have been generated, including additional transaction costs.
For example, if four private firms bid for a contract to supply a public organisation (firms A – D), against an existing firm, E, and firm B wins the bid, the losing bidders have incurred many costs in pursuing the bid. These costs including legal costs, and other managerial costs incurred in constructing an submitting the bid. In addition, the ‘losing’ incumbent will incur exit costs, such as redundancy payments. It may be that the net cost savings in terms of supply costs are much smaller and possibly non-existent when all the transaction costs are included.
There are also concerns that firms may make very low bids in an attempt to pursue a predatory pricing strategy. Once rivals have been driven out of the market, the incumbent can raise price and extract short-term super normal profits.
Effective regulation may also involve bringing down barriers to entry, such as forcing the incumbent to allow potential rivals to have access their network or infrastructure. This is referred to as opening-up or unbundling their infrastructure. The is common practice in the communication industry where incumbents may have significant market power over the use of the network they own.
Prohibiting further mergers and acquisitions (M&A) – to stop the level of concentration in the industry increasing.
In some industries, the regulator might allow self regulation. Certain industries may be allowed to self regulate by establishing a code of conduct by which industry members agree to abide. In 2002, the main UK supermarkets established a voluntary code of conduct following criticism by the Competition Commission in 2000. Critics argue that self-regulation is unlikely to provide sufficient incentive for firms to behave responsibly.
Having a licensing system, such as with the train operating companies (TOCs) and Royal Mail for letter post. Licenses can be extended or withdrawn, subject to the performance of the license operator.
Water industry regulation – the new ‘rules’
See: evaluation of Competition Policy