Tuesday, 17 October 2017

How many is 'enough'?

The ACCC has been doing a fine bit of reporting on the state of competition in various petrol markets around Australia. Its latest one, out last week, is on Brisbane, where it found that motorists were paying roughly 3.3 Aussie cents a litre over the odds compared to the other large cities in Australia, which adds up to A$50 million extracted from drivers' pockets over a full year.

The reason? Less intense competition in Brisbane. Which looks a bit odd at first, when you compare the industry structure in Brisbane with that in Sydney. They don't look that different - in terms of numbers of petrol stations, both cities have the oil companies (BP and Caltex in Brisbane), supermarket outlets, independent chains, and small independents. We can only salivate in contemplation of the degree of choice both cities have compared to us (and in particular compared to our South Island).


But it's a bit more apparent than real. In Brisbane the ACCC found that the supermarkets and the independents don't always price that sharply ('RULP' in the graph is regular unleaded petrol). Coles by the way looks a bit worse than it really is, as the prices measured are pump prices, before using "shopper dockets" (those discounts you get with your supermarket receipt). I'd guess a big proportion of the drivers who belly up to Coles will be armed with the discount.


In Sydney, though, the independents go for it.


Part of the difference may be down to the pricing strategies the Brisbane companies have happened to follow. But part of it is down to the greater leeway the Brisbane players have to follow less aggressive pricing plans: there's been a degree of consolidation over the past ten years, with two independents merged into one, and 7-Eleven buying Mobil's stations.

This is sobering stuff for us on this side of the Tasman. If two supermarkets, two oil companies, five independent chains and a tail of small outlets aren't enough to constrain petrol prices in Brisbane to what's on offer in the other Aussie cities, what hope have motorists in New Zealand got of getting a really sharp price from the three big players (BP, Mobil, Z) and the regionally limited price discipline that Gull imposes?

The more time has gone by - and in the light of MBIE's petrol study (links to study here, my comments here and here) - the more I'm leaning towards the view that Dr Jill Walker, the dissenter in the Commerce Commission's approval of the Z/Chevron merger - had the right end of the stick. She said (para 40 of her dissent):
An independent Chevron also provides an ‘option value’ for increased competition in the future without the merger. Without the merger, Chevron’s assets would remain independent of Z. Importantly, this involves not simply retail assets, but an entire supply chain. Effective competition in retail fuel markets tends to be driven by retailers who are backed by their own independent supply chain, such as Gull in parts of the North Island...I am not satisfied that in the future without the merger, there is not a real chance that Chevron’s assets could be used to disrupt retail coordination and increase competition. With the merger, any real chance is permanently removed.
What the Brisbane report shows, in my view, is that you need to facilitate every bit of competition you possibly can: you need a lot of parties to get the sort of outcomes Sydney and Melbourne motorists enjoy. And the option value of one extra aggressive competitor is very high indeed when you're starting (as we are) from a highly concentrated starting point.

The other thing the Brisbane report shows - and I'm not apologising for banging on about it yet again - is what a useful thing these "market studies" are. Our Commerce Commission still hasn't got the ability to do what the ACCC has just done, and does anyone really think the ACCC report was a bad idea, or that the Commerce Commission wouldn't have done just as good a job?

Little birdies tell me that the legislation to give the Commission some limited market studies powers is getting closer and that a petrol study could well be first out of the blocks. There's even a chance that the Commission will, in time, be let do studies off its own bat instead of waiting for Ministerial direction.

Good.

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