UK: Failure Of Competition In Retail Energy Markets: "Disengaged Customers" (Still) The Root Cause?

Last Updated: 19 February 2015
Article by Adam Brown

Emerging analysis from the investigation into GB gas and electricity supply by the UK's Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) suggests that consumers are paying more than they need to because of their failure to "engage in" the market and because of shortcomings in the regulation of the sector.

Some seven months into an investigation instigated by Ofgem and six months after producing its initial issues statement setting out the areas on which it would be focusing, the CMA has published an updated version of the issues statement and a summary of smaller suppliers' views on barriers to entry and expansion in the market (one of a series of "working papers" that provide more detail of the CMA's analysis and the evidence on which it is based).

The problem

The CMA is fairly clear that both domestic and "microbusiness" consumers of gas and electricity are paying more than they need to – noting, for example, that "95% of the dual fuel customers" of the Big 6 could have saved an average of between £158 and £234 by switching tariff and/or supplier. They also note, as others have done before them, that customers on "Standard Variable Tariffs" (SVT) tend to see their bills rising faster and falling slower than increases and decreases in the underlying costs of supply would suggest (the so-called "rocket and feather" effect – see graph below).

The search for causes

However, the CMA has so far rejected a number of the "usual suspects" when it comes to explaining why consumers appear to be paying more than they need to, without there being any obvious reason for their loyalty to their existing suppliers. The initial issues statement was based on four hypothetical "theories of harm" that could account for failures of competition:

  • "market power in electricity generation leads to higher prices;
  • opaque prices and/or low levels of liquidity in wholesale electricity markets create barriers to entry in retail and generation, perverse incentives for generators and/or other inefficiencies in market functioning;
  • vertically integrated electricity companies harm the competitive position of non-integrated firms to the detriment of the customer, either by increasing the costs of non-integrated energy suppliers or reducing the sales of non-integrated generating companies;
  • energy suppliers face weak incentives to compete on price and non-price factors in retail markets, due in particular to inactive customers, supplier behaviour and/or regulatory interventions.".

Taking each of these in turn, the CMA's current (but explicitly provisional) analysis is as follows:

  • The Big 6 are not making excessive profits from generation and do not have the ability or incentive – individually or collectively – to increase profits by withdrawing capacity.
  • There are not significant problems as regards the transparency of the wholesale markets. Those smaller suppliers who complain about a lack of liquidity, at least for certain products, have yet to persuade the CMA that this is a major concern, although they note that Ofgem's Secure and Promote licence condition has not addressed all the problems in this area.
  • The CMA also does not think that the Big 6′s vertical integration enables them to cause independent generators to restrict their output or allows them to take action in the wholesale markets that disadvantages independent retailers. One independent supplier saw vertical integration as a competitive disadvantage (potentially tying a supplier to generating plant whose efficiency reduces over time, especially if measured against the best in the market).
  • The only one of the original "theories of harm" which seems to offer an explanation of the failure of competition is the fourth one above, notably "inactive consumers". Although the domestic market share of independent suppliers grew from 1% to 7% (electricity) or 8% (gas) between July 2011 and July 2014, the fact remains that almost half of domestic consumers have not switched supplier for at least 10 years. Many do not even believe switching is possible. As one of the independent suppliers points out, having a large base of relatively price-insensitive customers on SVT may enable an incumbent to compete more aggressively against new entrants for the business of those who do take active steps to get a good deal. Another suggests that it is almost as if there are two markets: one composed of potential switchers and another of those who are terminally loyal to their incumbent supplier.

Regulation may be stifling competition

One of the things that stands out in the CMA's analysis is the emphasis on the potentially adverse effects that various aspects of sectoral regulation may be having on competition. This is most conspicuous in the addition of two new hypothetical "theories or harm":

  • "the market rules and regulatory framework distort competition and lead to inefficiencies in wholesale electricity markets;
  • the broader regulatory framework, including the current system of code governance, acts as a barrier to pro-competitive innovation and change.".

But it is also seen elsewhere. Examples of potentially problematic regulation identified include:

  • Elements in Ofgem's recent reform of cashout prices (the Electricity Balancing Significant Code Review) "may lead to an overcompensation of generators".
  • It may be inefficient not to have a system of locational prices for constraints and losses on the transmission network. It may be that consumers in Scotland and the North of England should be paying more, and those in the South of England paying less, for their electricity.
  • The Capacity Market element of Electricity Market Reform (EMR) "appears broadly competitive", but the CMA plan to look at if further. They note that the Contracts for Difference regime may not secure the lowest prices for renewable generation subsidies by having separate "pots" for different technologies, rather than requiring them to compete all-against-all, or by allowing the award of contracts on a non-competitive basis, before observing, equally obviously, that "there are potentially competing objectives that need to be taken into account in the design of the CfD allocation mechanism". One independent supplier also characterises the system by which CfD costs are recovered from suppliers as "madness".
  • But any problems caused by EMR are for the future. Looking back, the CMA have clearly listened both to those who have criticised Ofgem's 2009 decision to prohibit regional price discrimination (while providing exemptions for promotional tariffs), which may have led to a consumer-confusing increase in the number of tariffs, and to those who question Ofgem's 2013 decision to force suppliers to "simplify" their tariff portfolios drastically, which resulted in the loss of tariff discount options that may or may not have been valued by consumers. However, the CMA have yet to form a final view on the merits of either decision.
  • It has often been observed that the 250,000 account threshold, above which suppliers become subject to the Energy Company Obligation (ECO), may act as a barrier to growth for independent suppliers. More interestingly, the CMA note that the costs of the social and environmental policies delivered by suppliers "fall disproportionately on electricity rather than gas", meaning that "domestic consumption of electricity attracts a much higher implicit carbon price than domestic consumption of gas" – which may have implications for the take-up of electrical heating systems (normally thought of as part of decarbonising energy usage). This is another area where the CMA will be investigating further.
  • Finally, the CMA identify aspects of the Balancing and Settlement Code (BSC) and other industry agreements that could be standing in the way of more effective competition. They ask, for example, why, once smart meters have been rolled out, there are no plans to move away from the system whereby domestic customers' consumption is "profiled", rather than being based on half-hourly meter readings. Failure to take advantage of the new technology in this way could "distort incentives to innovate". The CMA will also be considering further whether there are just too many codes in the electricity industry (constituting a barrier to entry) and whether the mechanisms for changing industry rules may be stacked too heavily in favour of incumbents and the status quo. On the first point, Elexon itself, administrator of the BSC, apparently thinks that "rationalising" the codes will remove potential barriers to competition.

Next steps

Interested parties have until 18 March 2015 to comment on the updated issues statement. The next major step will be the publication of "provisional findings", currently scheduled for May 2015. Overall, the investigation is not due to conclude before November / December 2015, and it could be extended into 2016. It is of course far too early to speculate on possible remedies, but for now the more obviously Draconian options in the CMA's armoury, such as the breaking up of vertically integrated groups, appear unlikely outcomes. Something eye-catching to cause "inactive" consumers to "engage", and a lot of "boring but important" changes in the regulatory undergrowth around industry codes and agreements seem reasonable bets for now, but there is a long way to go yet.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
Events from this Firm
28 Sep 2017, Seminar, London, UK

On 26 July the FCA published its long-expected consultation paper on the extension of the SMCR to all FCA-authorised firms. The so-called "core regime" introduces the key concepts of regulator-approved senior managers, firm-approved certification staff and conduct rules applicable to virtually all staff.

3 Oct 2017, Conference, Zurich, Switzerland

As the founding Partner of the Europe-Iran Forum, Dentons Europe will once again support this year’s event. This compelling event which explores all Iran-related topics will take place in Zürich on 3rd and 4th October.

4 Oct 2017, Conference, Munich, Germany

Dentons Global Real Estate Group is delighted to be exhibiting once again at EXPO REAL, the International Trade Fair for Property and Investment which takes place on 4-6 October, 2017 in Munich, Germany.

 
In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
 
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Position
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Accounting
 Anti-trust
 Commercial
 Compliance
 Consumer
 Criminal
 Employment
 Energy
 Environment
 Family
 Finance
 Government
 Healthcare
 Immigration
 Insolvency
 Insurance
 International
 IP
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Litigation
 Media & IT
 Privacy
 Real Estate
 Strategy
 Tax
 Technology
 Transport
 Wealth Mgt
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of www.mondaq.com

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about Mondaq.com’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.

Disclaimer

Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.

Registration

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to unsubscribe@mondaq.com with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.

Cookies

A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.

Links

This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.

Mail-A-Friend

If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.

Security

This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to webmaster@mondaq.com.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to EditorialAdvisor@mondaq.com.

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at enquiries@mondaq.com.

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at problems@mondaq.com and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.