Thursday, 5 December 2019

Our first market study

The petrol market study came out a short while ago, and if you haven't caught up with where it landed, the Commerce Commission has an infographic on its main findings, another one on its recommendations, the media presentation this morning, an executive summary, plus the whole report.

From a regulatory policy point of view I like where it has gone. There's been an almost unthinking reach for heavier-handed forms of sectoral regulation in recent years, and it's good to see a lighter-touch approach favoured for petrol. The two main recommendations are a terminal gate pricing wholesale market, and less restrictive contractual arrangements between petrol wholesalers and petrol retailers, both overseen by an industry code of conduct.

There is the threat of tougher regulation in the background if these arrangements don't do what they're meant to, which is fair enough, but the key element is a "more market" one, with a currently ineffective wholesale petrol market getting a kick start towards greater liquidity and relevance. And that's as it should be: the intervention required should be the minimum required to get a result, and if we can get an effective market-based solution satisfactorily supervised by the industry itself, we're done.

These are of course only recommendations to the government, and who knows how a three-headed cat will jump, but hopefully the proposals will get the tick. At least we know we will get a response, as the very excellent s51(e) of the Commerce Act requires that "The Minister must respond to the final competition report within a reasonable time after the report is made publicly available".

The thing I was most mulling about, in the interval between the draft report back in August (which I wrote about here) and this morning, was what had happened to all those arguments about the real problem being tacit retail price collusion, which had cropped up in (for example) the MBIE petrol market study and in the Commission's own Z / Chevron decision. The answer to that is in para 7.97 of today's report, where the Commission says coordination is still a risk, but one that will be made harder (and any effects would be less) if the proposed wholesale market gets up and running:
most of the market features that made retail markets vulnerable to tacit  coordination when we considered the Z/Chevron merger in 2015/16 remain today although some market features have changed to make the markets more vulnerable to tacit coordination and others less so. We consider that retail fuel markets are vulnerable to some level of tacit coordination. We welcome Z Energy removing the MPP from its website. However, we consider that tacit coordination has been and may remain at least a contributing factor to the margins that we observe. We consider that measures to improve competition at wholesale and retail levels of the fuel supply chain, opening up those markets to new suppliers, will reduce their vulnerability to accommodating behaviour as well the potential effect of any such behaviour that does occur.
Out of vanity I looked up what had happened to my own little submission on the draft: I'd said that a chart showing New Zealand with amongst the world's highest post-tax petrol prices should have been on a purchasing power parity basis, rather than at market exchange rates, since market rates at one point in time can wobble all over the place, and what looks expensive in New Zealand today might look cheap tomorrow. I'll call it a draw: at 3.88-89 the Commission agrees that a point-in-time comparison isn't the best, and they've included longer-term paths which show our petrol prices are indeed among the developed world's most expensive (possibly for good reason, eg transport costs to a small isolated country), but the Commission remains wedded to spot rates. Over longer periods the Commission says spot rates will average out the volatility.

The other thing to take away is that we've now seen the first final output from the new market studies powers. Self-evidently, despite the critics and sceptics, the sky has not fallen. It's been done at reasonable cost, in reasonable time, with a good degree of balance - in the media presentation, the chair Anna Rawlings pointed out a range of consumer-benefiting innovations in the petrol business, for example - and with sensible-looking recommendations tailored to the diagnosis. Good day's work all round.

Who'll be next, I wonder? The goss has been that the government in principle recognises that the Commission can initiate its own studies (s50 of the Act) but in practice will fund only one a year, and will be picking another one toot sweet to pre-empt which one it'll be. I've heard rumours, but let's not spoil anyone's Christmas.

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