Price collusion in oligopolies
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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016
An oligopoly market exists when a few large firms dominate the industry. This form of market structure lies in between the realms of the unattainable structure of ‘Perfect Competition’ to the structure of ‘Monopoly’. Each firm competes in order to maximise its market share. Oligopolies are defined as per their behavioural aspects rather than their market structure. As a result oligopolies are characterised upon two fundamentals; high barriers to entry and interdependence. Even though each firm competes with one another, each firm is still tied with each other, in the sense that each firm is interdependent. When faced upon decisions, the firm must take into consideration the likely reaction of rival firms, as one wrong move can end with a devastating consequence; the loss of market share. Incumbent firms are protected by barriers to entry; however each industry varies in terms of contestability. The goods and services that firms produce within an oligopoly are differentiated, in the sense that similar goods vary in terms of its branding, quality and after-sales services etc. A few good examples of firms competing in oligopolistic markets are the car industry, supermarket chains and banks etc.
Oligopolies tend to behave either competitively or collusively. In accordance with the kinked demand curve theory, homogeneous oligopolies are fairly restricted in terms of price competition, as shown by the following diagram. Each firm must take into account the reactions of rivals; hence if a firm decided to raise prices, with the hope of gaining extra profits, from point P1 to P2. Other firms anticipate this increase, therefore keep their prices untouched. Quantity sold would plunge from point Q1 to Q2. This fall in sales is greater than the increase in price, and so leads to an overall fall in revenue; hence the elastic demand curve (curve A). However if this firm chose as an alternative, to lower its prices from point P1 to P3, other firms would follow suit, with the intentions of not losing market share to its rival. Consequently quantity sold would only increase from point Q1 to Q3.
The fall in price would have to be larger for it to accommodate the increase in sales, hence the inelastic demand curve (curve B). Again this decision would result in a reduction in revenue, bearing in mind a fall in market share. Thus firms are reluctant to change prices due to the effects mentioned. Therefore, price stability is imposed under oligopoly markets; in turn firms focus on aspects of non-price competition. Such practices may include extra after-sales services, longer opening times, extended warranties and extensive advertising campaigns etc. Non-price competition would therefore shift the demand curve or the firm successfully makes the price elasticity of demand for the product less elastic, thus developing brand loyalty amongst consumers.
Price/non-price competition involves firms behaving interdependently. Seeking to eliminate market uncertainty is a key desire for a market dominated by a few large firms. Thus businesses are keen to collude with competitors to reduce the effects of interdependence, either collude openly (formal agreements), or tacitly (informally under the radar). Formal collusive agreements bring forth the formation of a cartel. The advantages of such cartels, is that firms are able to achieve joint profit maximisation. Each member of the cartel is given an output quota usually depending upon each firm’s market share, which as a whole will maximise the cartel’s profits at the profit maximising price. Cartels therefore act as if they were a monopoly, taking control of the whole industry, whereby it is able to restrict output and raise prices (disadvantages of a monopoly structure). Consumer surplus is restricted and producer sovereignty exploited.
As an assumption, there are a total of five firms in the industry, each agreed to be a member of the cartel. For the members to achieve joint profit maximisation, the cartel thus has to produce at its profit maximising level at point where marginal costs (MC) equals marginal revenue (MR). Thus the cartel, therefore the industry produces 4000 units which are then sold at the price of £6. Assuming that each firm shares an equal amount of the market, for that reason each firm is given an output quota of 800 units. By analysing each firm independently (figure 3), the quota of 800 units does not lie at their profit maximising level. For this reason, the firm is likely to cheat, maybe undercut the cartel price or increase output to maximise its utility. Assuming the firm agrees not to change the price, for the firm to maximise its profits, it would have to increase output to 2400 units at the point where the cartel’s price (MR) equals the firms MC curve. At the cartel output, it would achieve revenue of £4800. By increasing output to 2400 units it can boost revenue to £14400; a good 200% increase in revenue. This would only occur if the firm can control total market share, taking the other members out of the equation. In turn if the firm wished to profit maximise using its own curves, it would therefore sell 1600 units at a price of £4 at where MC=MR. By undercutting the cartel price the firm can attract extra customers, therefore increase supernormal profits. Interestingly, other member firms are also likely to lower their prices in the midst of cheating, which could lead to a price war, eventually leading to the breakdown of the cartel.
For the reasons mentioned above, i.e. cartels behaving as a monopoly and the breakdowns of the cartels can lead to increased price fluctuations; in the interests of consumers, cartels are deemed illegal in many countries including the UK. Cartels, being against the public interest, its in the interests of the Competition Commission and the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) to investigate such cartel behaviour and counteract the cartels intentions. Bearing in mind that cartels are against the public interest, there is one cartel being in favour of consumers and the economy as a whole. It is not formed by a group of member firms, but formed with member countries; OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries).
As stated, ‘OPEC’s mission is to coordinate and unify the petroleum policies of Member Countries and ensure the stabilization of oil markets in order to secure an efficient, economic and regular supply of petroleum to consumers, a steady income to producers and a fair return on capital to those investing in the petroleum industry’ (OPEC, http://www.opec.org/home/ ). Assuming OPEC keeps to its ‘mission’, it is truthful to say that OPEC aims to strengthen the global economy, bringing price stability in the commodity market. However other firms caught with price fixing have not had the same treatment. Just recently the New York Times has published ‘LCD makers fined $585 million for price fixing’ (New York Times, Published; November 13 2008, by Steve Lohr). LG Display, Sharp and Chunghwa Picture Tubes were investigated and pled guilty of fixing the price of their liquid crystal display panels and were fined a total of $585 million by the U.S. Justice Department’s antitrust division.
The difficulties faced with open collusion, and the consequences (the Competition Commission can fine the firms involved in cartel behaviour 10% of their worldwide turnover), means that firms are often reluctant to form cartels, therefore take the chances to collude tacitly. There are a few methods of tacit collusion, the popular being ‘Dominant-firm Price Leadership’. In simple terms the dominant firm in the industry becomes the price leader, at which the other firms tactically follow the dominant firm’s price changes, yet also keeping a close eye on their rivals. There is some evidence linking the supermarket industry to this method of dominant-firm price leadership, whereby Tesco being the dominant of all supermarkets. As published by TNSGlobal, ‘for the 12 weeks ending 1st November 2009 show that Tesco has grown its market share from 30.6% a year ago to 30.7% now’. TNSGlobal claims that, ‘Tesco’s growth rate of 4.7% year-on-year beats the market average of 4.4%’ (TNSGlobal, www.tnsglobal.com ). Being the dominant in the industry, it therefore acts as a price setter, resulting in the other firms following the price changes. However this strategy has been a prime condition of Tesco (to control the market), up until the moment one of the supermarket firms cheats by undercutting the price and not following the price leadership strategy. This has been the case recently (from personal experiences), that Asda is the better value supermarket, and may be voted as the ‘credit crunch climate’ favourite.
Asda’s main advantage for the consumer is that there are a wide range of discounted products, that even Tesco and other supermarkets can’t match. Instead of the price leadership tactic, oligopolies may indulge in price parallelism, whereby each firm’s price movements are parallel with their rivals. Such a policy requires no dominant firm imposing price changes.
Besides firms who dominate the industry being the price leader, firms may become a barometer of market conditions, whereby firms engage in the tactic of barometric price leadership. This form of approach unfolds when a firm can successfully anticipate future market conditions in the short run, applying their knowledge to price changes. Firms neither have to be dominating the industry nor be a large firm. Price changes thus reflect changes in market demand or supply, where the firm who predicts such changes in the market becomes the barometer in the industry in which fellow competitors follow. From such a policy, it is important to note that firms frequently switch between the roles of a price leader to a price follower. As a precaution, following firms may delay their price changes in order to be sure that the price changes by the barometer is consistent with the results obtained of the current market situation. Therefore a time lag may arise, or firms may decide that results are inconsistent with the barometer, thus leave their price unchanged, undercutting the price leader. In the interest of each firm, costs may rise as a result of marker research, therefore in order to minimise the costs, firms may just follow the price changes of the price leader without undertaking research, in the hope that the barometer is correct about current or future market conditions.
Firms may compete in terms of the Bertrand model. This model assumes that there are two firms in the industry (duopoly). Both firms aim for price stability in order to reduce menu costs. Hence both firms set their prices at where it would have been in a perfectly competitive market, usually making normal profit. This point refers to the Nash equilibrium. This ensures that neither firm can undercut the price, avoiding any price wars.
To conclude, it can be suggested that there is some correlation between the policies in which oligopolies compete at, and the contestability of the industry in which they operate in. A highly contestable market in which barriers to entry are low, pressurises firms to compete more aggressively, whereas if incumbent firms have successfully erected high barriers to entry, whether natural or man-made barriers; the industry becomes less contestable, providing incentives to collude to maintain market share. There is a high probability that the formation of cartels will inevitably lead to the breakdown of the cartel, for reasons of cheating. Price fixing or other forms of agreement never maximises each firms benefit. However, this statement only relates to the short term, but an agreement with other firms does reduce uncertainty, therefore benefiting firms in the long run to maintain supernormal profits. Member firms must find ways to restrict other members from cheating on the cartel price. Therefore the profit loss incurred by deviating from the cartel should exceed the profit loss by remaining in the cartel. As shown by figure 3, this is difficult to achieve. Theoretically, it is easy to form a cartel when approached via the text-book assumptions. However in the real world, it is difficult without perfect information being available. Research suggests that, differences in product life cycles and fluctuations in demand create instability among agreements, which naturally fractures the cartel (Haltiwanger and Harrington (1991)). Collusion to mimic operations as a monopoly allows investment in research and development to be funded collectively via joint profit maximisation, benefiting consumers in the long run. In essence, firms who compete without any form of collusion or agreements, have greater scope to maximise personal utility, by developing brand loyalty among consumers, thus being able to successfully increase market share. This would be the best policy to approach benefiting both the firms and the consumer, yet avoiding any government intervention.
- Garner, E. (2009). Tesco Share Turnaround. Available: http://www.tnsglobal.com/_assets/files/worldpanel_marketshare_oct2009.pdf. Last accessed 03/12/2009.
- Haltiwanger, J. and J. Harrington (1991), “The impact of cyclical demand movements on collusive behaviour,” Rand Journal of Economics, 22:89- 106.
- Lohr, S. (2008) ‘LCD makers fined $585 million for price fixing’, New York Times, 13 November. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/13/technology/13iht-13panel.17777580.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=LCD%20makers%20fined%20%24585%20million%20for%20price%20fixing&st=cse. Last accessed 03/12/2009
- OPEC. (n.d.). OPEC’s Mission. Available: http://www.opec.org/home/ . Last accessed 02/12/2009.
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