Monday, 10 May 2021


Every year the American Economic Association picks the year's best paper from each of its four journals (Applied Economics, Economic Policy, Macroeconomics, Microeconomics): there's a list of the winners for the past decade here if you'd like to catch up with the good stuff. In a nice touch, you can download the full text of each one without being an AEA member. 

So us pro-competition types can feast, for example, on the finding by the 2016 Economic Policy winner ('Death by Market Power: Reform, Competition, and Patient Outcomes in the National Health Service') that increased competition in the UK's National Health Service worked:

Within two years of implementation, the NHS reforms resulted in significant improvements in mortality and reductions in length of stay without changes in total expenditure or increases in expenditure per patient. Our back of the envelope estimates suggest that the immediate net benefit of this policy is around $479 million per year

Fernando Luco, who hails from Texas A&M University, is this year's winner in the Microeconomics category with 'Who Benefits from Information Disclosure? The Case of Retail Gasoline'. This one, though, doesn't have such an unambiguously happy moral.

Our story starts in Chile in 2012, when the government required petrol stations to post their prices on a government website and update them promptly (within 15 minutes) whenever they changed. An everyday tale of empowering customers to find the best deal, you might think.

Except that petrol stations' margins increased by some 9% after the new disclosure policy, and various statistical checks confirmed that it was indeed the disclosure policy, and not some non-policy event happening at the same time, that was behind the petrol stations coining it.

What went on? As the author says (p278)

information disclosure may have both pro- and anti-competitive effects. On the one hand, disclosure may intensify competition if consumers benefit from lower search costs and firms use the website to compete more intensively. On the other hand, if stations can easily monitor their rivals’ actions and consumers do not actively use the disclosed information, disclosure may facilitate coordination

so it could go either way, and the net effect depends on who uses the info smartest.  As it happens, the author had a dataset of smartphone price look-ups, geocoded, so he could see in each local petrol market how actively people were checking out the prices on offer. In aggregate, the petrol stations won - but not everywhere (p302):

price disclosure allowed firms to monitor their rivals’ actions and to increase their payoffs on average. However, when consumers actively engaged in search [which he could tell, from his dataset], the demand-side response to disclosure dominated and competition intensified

The more smartphone-savvy higher income areas came out okay, lower-income areas not so much: "while in the lowest income areas margins increased by around 12 percent, margins decreased by 4 percent in the highest income areas, suggesting that disclosure affected low income areas the most" (p296). 

Bottom line from a competition policy point of view (p303)? 

mechanisms that increase market transparency may increase competition and benefit consumers only if consumers can easily access and use the disclosed information. Otherwise, the supply-side response to disclosure is likely to dominate, and the intensity of competition will decrease. Hence, this paper provides evidence showing that policy makers should consider ease of access to the newly disclosed information to be of major importance

In a New Zealand context, I suspect smartphone use probably doesn't vary as much with income as (I'm guessing) it does in Chile. Even so, the general proposition still applies: a price disclosure Cunning Plan has the potential to be a good pro-competition pro-consumer idea, but only if there's a good deal of effort put into making sure people from every walk of life end up using the thing.

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