Weak beer and antitrust economics

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal brought the story, “Bud Crowded Out by Craft Beer Craze.” While Bud Light is currently the highest selling beer in the United States, the flagship brand Budweiser is fading. The international beverage giant is scrambling to win over younger drinkers to boost Budweiser sales, so the familiar Clydesdale horses are out this holiday season and ads will take on a younger vibe.

On Facebook Alexie Marcoux commented that Budweiser’s decline ought to put the end to the old Galbraithian narratives about corporations so powerful they can dictate tastes and preferences. We can hope (but I’m not hopeful — I suspect the demand for evil dragons to be slain by heroic antitrust economists will keep the myth alive).

The beer giant has been through a few mergers over recent years, and I wondered how Budweiser’s troubles were reflected in the related antitrust analysis. Antitrust theory isn’t built on the work of John Kenneth Galbraith, but antitrust narratives conjure similar images of powerful corporations and seemingly helpless consumers (granted that antitrust lawyers write in more leaden prose than JKG).

In January 2013 the U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust office filed a lawsuit challenging Anheuser-Busch InBev’s acquisition of a 100 percent stake in Grupo Modelo. Here is what Justice was worried about just over a year ago:

The Department of Justice filed a civil antitrust lawsuit today challenging Anheuser-Busch InBev’s (ABI) proposed acquisition of total ownership and control of Grupo Modelo.  The department said that the $20.1 billion transaction would substantially lessen competition in the market for beer in the United States as a whole and in 26 metropolitan areas across the United States, resulting in consumers paying more for beer and having fewer new products from which to choose.

Americans spent at least $80 billion on beer last year.  According to the department, ABI’s Bud Light is the best selling beer in the United States and Modelo’s Corona Extra is the best-selling import.  Because of the size of the beer market in the United States, even a small increase in the price of beer could result in billions of dollars of harm to American consumers, the department said.

According to the department’s complaint, the U.S. beer market is already highly concentrated, and prices are increased by strategic interactions among the largest brewers, including ABI and MillerCoors. ABI generally acts as the price leader, implementing annual price increases in the sub-premium, premium and premium plus segments of the U.S. beer industry. MillerCoors and other brewers have typically joined the ABI price increases, while Modelo has not. By pricing aggressively, Modelo–through its importer, Crown Imports–puts pressure on ABI to maintain or lower prices, especially in certain parts of the country. As a result, Modelo has become a particularly important competitor in the U.S. market.

The press release manages to divide the industry into for segments, from “sub premium” (i.e. Busch and Keystone) to “high end” which is described as including Corona, Heineken, “and a variety of craft beers.” This brief mention, as just a fraction of a segment of the industry, is the only mention of craft beers in the press release. Justice’s formal complaint mentions craft beers three times, each time more or less as an aside — they missed the real market action.

In the resulting agreement, the United States federal government sought to promote competition in the beer industry by, among other things, extracting a promise from the company acquiring a few AB-InBev assets that it would expand the capacity of a brewery in Mexico to at least 20 million hectoliters of packaged beer annually.

For this heroic antitrust effort beer consumers in the United States offer a heart-felt yawn. How many of our tax dollars when into deciding whether the Mexican brewery needed a capacity of 20 million hectoliters, rather than 15 million or 23.5 million?

Meanwhile, actual competition in the market continues to force international beverage giant AB-InBev to scramble for new customers.

NOTE 1: See full collection of Justice documents here.

NOTE 2: It isn’t just the Department of Justice, the private think tank the American Antitrust Institute is also worried about concentration in the beer market. Just a few days ago AAI sent a letter to the Department of Justice expressing concern about rumors of a AB-InBev merge with SABMiller. That letter follows AAI’s lengthy report, Global Beer: Road to Monopoly, which two years ago worried about a then-rumored merger between AB-InBev and SABMiller and the prospect of creating “a huge entity with great market power.”

I keep wondering how great the market power can be in a world without barriers to entry? No real secrets in how to brew beer. I suspect the biggest threats to competition emerge because alcohol distribution is highly regulated in the United States — not because one brewery in Mexico has a smaller than desired production capacity — but I suspect the Department of Justice will not be challenging the post-prohibition three-tier system anytime soon.

Price gouging in a second language

Research on differences between decisions made in a person’s native tongue and decisions made in a second language reminded me of an unexplored idea in the social dynamics surrounding price gouging.

I’ve devoted a few posts to the question of whether or not price gouging laws get applied in a discriminatory fashion against “outsiders,” primarily thinking of immigrants or cultural minorities. My evidence is slim, mostly the casual reading of a handful of news stories, but consider these prior posts and possible examples from Mississippi, New Jersey, and West Virginia.

In the New Jersey article I speculated it was possible that “outsiders” were more likely to engage in price gouging behaviors, and observed, “Social distance between buyers and sellers can work both ways.”

Some support for my speculation comes through communication research by Boaz Keysar of the University of Chicago, who has documented the view, as the subtitle of an article in the journal Psychological Science puts it, “thinking in a foreign tongue reduces decision biases.” Part of the explanation Keysar and his coauthors offer is the “foreign language provides greater cognitive and emotional distance than a native tongue does.” (The work was mentioned in a recent Freakonomics podcast.) An immigrant hotelier or retailer may not connect as emotionally as a native does with laws expressed in the native’s language or with customers when transacting in that language. When exchange is seen as impersonal rather than personal, price-setters are less constrained in their pricing decisions.

Interestingly, Keysar is also coauthor on a study concluding that moral judgments are markedly more utilitarian when problems and responses are conducted in a second language. Economic analysis tends to support the view that “price gouging” in response to sudden shifts in demand is the correct utilitarian response (as flexible prices help goods and services move toward those who value them most).

The spin on wind, or, an example of bullshit in the field of energy policy

The Wall Street Journal recently opined against President Obama’s nominee for Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman, Norman Bay, and in the process took a modest swipe at subsidies for wind energy.

The context here is Bay’s action while leading FERC’s enforcement division, and in particular his prosecution of electric power market participants who manage to run afoul of FERC’s vague definition for market manipulation even though their trading behavior complied with all laws, regulations, and market rules.

So here the WSJ‘s editorial board pokes a little at subsidized wind in the process of making a point about reckless prosecutions:

As a thought experiment, consider the production tax credit for wind energy. In certain places at certain times, the subsidy is lucrative enough that wind generators make bids at negative prices: Instead of selling their product, they pay the market to drive prices below zero or “buy” electricity that would otherwise go unsold to qualify for the credit.

That strategy harms unsubsidized energy sources, distorts competition and may be an offense against taxpayers. But it isn’t a crime in the conventional legal sense because wind outfits are merely exploiting the subsidy in the open. The rational solution would be to end the subsidies that create negative bids, not to indict the wind farms. But for Mr. Bay, the same logic doesn’t apply to FERC.

The first quoted paragraph seems descriptive of reality and doesn’t cast wind energy in any negative light. The second quoted paragraph suggests the subsidy harms unsubsidized competitors, also plainly true, and that it “distorts competition” and “may be an offense against taxpayers.” These last two characterizations also strike me as fair descriptions of current public policy, and perhaps as mildly negative in tone.

Of course folks at the wind industry’s lobby shop are eager to challenge any little perceived slight, so the AWEA’s Michael Goggin sent a letter to the editor:

Your editorial “Electric Prosecutor Acid Test” (May 19) ignores wind energy’s real consumer benefits by mentioning the red herring of negative electricity prices. Negative prices are extremely rare and are usually highly localized in remote areas where they have little to no impact on other power plants, are caused by inflexible nuclear power plants much of the time, and are being eliminated as long-needed grid upgrades are completed.

Wind energy’s real impact is saving consumers money by displacing more expensive forms of energy, which is precisely why utilities bought wind in the first place. This impact is entirely market-driven, occurs with or without the tax credit, and applies to all low-fuel-cost sources of energy, including nuclear.

The tax relief provided to wind energy more than pays for itself by enabling economic development that generates additional tax revenue and represents a small fraction of the cumulative incentives given to other energy sources.

Michael Goggin
American Wind Energy Association
Washington, DC

Let’s just say I’ll believe the “impact is entirely market-driven” when someone produces a convincing study that shows the exact same wind energy capacity build-out would have happened over the last 20 years in the absence of the U.S. federal Production Tax Credit and state renewable energy purchase mandates. Without the tax credit, the wind energy industry likely would be (I’m guessing) less than one-tenth of its current size and without a big tax credit wouldn’t be the target of much public policy debate.

Of course, without much public policy debate, the wind energy industry wouldn’t need to hire so many lobbyists. Hence the AWEA’s urge to jump on any perceived slight, stir the pot, and keep debate going.

MORE on the lobbying against the Bay nomination. See also this WSJ op-ed.


Did ERCOT’s shift from zonal to nodal market design reduce electric power prices?

Jay Zarnikau, C.K. Woo, and Ross Baldick have examined whether the shift from a zonal to nodal market design in the ERCOT power market had a noticeable effect on electric energy prices. The resulting article, published in the Journal of Regulatory Economics, and this post may be a bit geekier than we usually get around here. I’ll try to tone it down and explain the ERCOT change and the effect on prices as clearly as I can.

The topic is important because the shift from zonal to nodal market structure was controversial, complicated, expensive, and took longer than expected. Problems had emerged shortly after launch of the initial zonal-based market and the nodal approach was offered as a solution. Some market participants had their doubts, but rather quickly ERCOT began the move to a nodal design. Note that phrasing: “rather quickly ERCOT began the move.” It took several years for ERCOT to actually complete the process.

In part the shift was promoted as a more efficient way to run the market. Zarnikau, Woo, and Baldick looked at the effect on prices as one way to assess whether or not the resulting market has worked more efficiently. They conclude energy prices are about 2 percent lower because of the nodal market design.

Don’t get hung up on the 2 percent number itself, but think of the shift as having a modest downward pressure on prices.

The result is consistent with an understanding one would gain from the study of power systems engineering as well as with what power system simulations showed. The point of the Zarnikau et al. study was to investigate whether data analysis after the fact supported expectations offered by theory and simulation. Because there is no better empirical study (so far as I am aware) and because their results are consistent with well-founded expectations, I have no reason to doubt their result. I will contest one interpretation they offer concerning the current resource adequacy debate in Texas.

Some background (which beginners should read and others can skip).

The delivery of electric energy to consumers is a joint effort between the generators that create the power and the wires that bring it to the consumer. The wires part of the system are not simple links between generators and consumers, but rather complicated network of wires in which consumers and generators are connected in multiple ways. The added flexibility that comes with networking helps the system work more reliably and at lower cost.

The network also comes with a big coordination problem, too. Power flows on the network are not individually controllable. With many generators producing power for many consumers, parts of the power grid may become overloaded. One key job of the power system operator is to watch the power flows on the electric grid and intervene as needed to prevent a transmission line from being overloaded. The intervention generally takes the form of directing a generator (or generators) contributing to the potential overload to reduce output and directing other generators to increase output. In areas outside of regional system operators, this function is done on a piecemeal basis as problems arise. A significant benefit coming from full-scale regional power markets integrated with system operations (such as ERCOT in Texas after the switch to a nodal market and in other similar ISO/RTO markets) is that such coordination can be done in advance, with more information, mostly automatically, and more efficiently than piecemeal adjustments.

Described in simpler terms, the regional power system operator helps generators and consumers coordinate use of the power grid in the effort to efficiently satisfy consumer demands for electric energy. A zonal market design, like ERCOT started with, did minimal advance coordination. The nodal market design and related changes implemented by ERCOT allowed the market to do more sophisticated and efficient coordination of grid use.

About data challenges.

In order to assess the effects on prices, the authors couldn’t simply average prices before and after the December 1, 2010 change in the market. The power system is a dynamic thing, and many other factors known to affect electric power prices changed between the two periods. Most significantly, natural gas prices were much lower on average after the market change than during the years before. Other changes include growing consumer load, higher offer caps, and increasing amounts of wind energy capacity. In addition, the prices are generated by the system has been changed, making simple before and after comparisons insufficient. For example, rather than four zonal prices produced every 15 minutes, the nodal market yields thousands of prices every 5 minutes.

One potentially significant data-related decision was a choice to omit “outliers,” prices that were substantially higher or lower than usual. The authors explain that extreme price spikes were much more frequent in 2011, after the change, but largely due to the summer of 2011 being among the hottest on record. At the same time the offer caps had been increased, so that prices spiked higher than they could have before, but not because of the zonal-to-nodal market shift. Omitting outliers reduces the impact of these otherwise confounding changes and should produce a better sense of the effect of the market change during more normal conditions.

Their conclusion and a mistaken interpretation.

Zarnikau, Woo, and Baldick conducted their price analysis on four ERCOT sub-regions separately so as to see if the change had differing impacts resulting from the changeover. The West zone stood out in the analysis, largely because that zone has seen the most significant other changes in the power system. The two main changes: continued sizable wind energy capacity additions in the zone, and more substantially, dramatic electrical load growth in the region due to the recent oil and gas drilling boom in west Texas. Because the West results were a bit flaky, they based their conclusions on results from the other three zones. Across a number of minor variations in specifications, the authors found a price suppression effect ranging from 1.3 and 3.3 percent, the load-weighted average of which is right around 2 percent.

So far, so good.

But next they offered what is surely a misinterpretation of their results. They wrote:

[T]he reduction in wholesale prices from the implementation of the nodal market might be viewed by some as a concern. In recent years, low natural gas prices and increased wind farm generation have also reduced electricity prices in ERCOT which has, in turn, impaired the economics of power plant construction. … It appears as though the nodal market’s design may have contributed to the drop in prices that the PUCT has now sought to reverse.

Strictly speaking, the goal of the Public Utility Commission of Texas hasn’t been to reverse the drop in prices, but to ensure sufficient investment in supply resources to reliably meet projected future demand. Lower prices appear to be offer smaller investment incentives than higher prices, but there is a subtle factor in play.

The real incentive to investment isn’t higher prices, it is higher profits. Remember, one of the most important reasons to make the switch from a zonal to a nodal market is that the nodal market is supposed to operate more efficiently. Zarnikau, Woo, and Baldick notice that marginal heat rates declined after the shift, evidence consistent with more efficient operations. The efficiency gain suggests generators are operating at an overall lower cost, which means even with lower prices generator profits could be higher now than they would have been. It all depends on whether the drop in cost was larger or smaller than the drop in prices.

The cost and profit changes will be somewhat different for generators depending on where they are located, what fuel they use, and how they typically operated. I’ll hazard the guess that relatively efficient natural gas plants have seen their profits increased a bit whereas less efficient gas plants, nuclear plants, and coal plants have likely seen profits fall a little.

FULL CITE: Zarnikau, J., C. K. Woo, and R. Baldick. “Did the introduction of a nodal market structure impact wholesale electricity prices in the Texas (ERCOT) market?.”Journal of Regulatory Economics 45.2 (2014): 194-208.

Here is a link to a non-gated preliminary version if you don’t have direct access to the Journal of Regulatory Economics.

AN ASIDE: One modest irony out of Texas–the multi-billion dollar CREZ transmission line expansion, mostly intended to support delivery of wind energy from West Texas into the rest of the state, has turned out to be used more to support the import of power from elsewhere in the state to meet the demands of a rapidly growing Permian Basin-based oil and gas industry.

Court says no to FERC’s negawatt payment rule

Jeremy Jacobs and Hannah Northey at Greenwire report “Appeals court throws out FERC’s demand-response order“:

A federal appeals court today threw out a high-profile Federal Energy Regulatory Commission order that provided incentives for electricity users to consume less power, a practice dubbed demand response.

In a divided ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck a blow to the Obama administration’s energy efficiency efforts, vacating a 2011 FERC order requiring grid operators to pay customers and demand-response providers the market value of unused electricity.

Among environmentalists this demand-response enabled “unused electricity” is sometimes described as negawatts. FERC’s rule required FERC-regulated wholesale electric power markets to pay demand-response providers the full market price of electricity. It is, of course, economic nonsense pursued in the effort to boost demand response programs in FERC-regulated markets.

The court held that FERC significantly overstepped the commission’s authority under the Federal Power Act.

The Federal Power Act assigns most regulatory authority over retail electricity prices to the states, and the court said FERC’s demand response pricing rule interfered with state regulators’ authority.

Personally, I would have dinged FERC’s rule for economic stupidity, but maybe that isn’t the court’s job. Actually, I did ding the FERC’s rule for its economic stupidity. I was one of twenty economists joining in a amicus brief in the case arguing that the FERC pricing rule didn’t make sense. The court’s decision gave our brief a nod:

Although we need not delve now into the dispute among experts, see, e.g., Br. of Leading Economists as Amicus Curiae in Support of Pet’rs, the potential windfall  to demand response resources seems troubling, and the Commissioner’s concerns are certainly valid.  Indeed, “overcompensation cannot be just and reasonable,” Order 745-A, 2011 WL 6523756, at *38 (Moeller, dissenting), and the Commission has not adequately explained how their system results in just compensation.

But if this negawatt-market price idea survives the appeals court rejection and takes off in the energy policy area, I have the following idea: I’d really like a Tesla automobile, but the current price indicates that Teslas are in high demand so I’m going to not buy one today. Okay, now who is going to pay me $90,000 for the nega-Tesla I just made?



The case for allowing negative electricity prices – Benedettini and Stagnaro

Simona Benedettini and Carlo Stagnaro make the case for allowing negative prices in electric power markets in Europe. A few of the larger power markets in Europe allow prices to go negative, but others retain a zero price lower limit. Benedettini and Stagnaro explain both why it is reasonable, economically speaking, to allow electricity prices to go negative and the hazards of retaining a zero-price minimum in a market which is interconnected to markets allowing the more efficient negative prices.

It is all good, but I can’t resist quoting this part:

Negative prices are not just the result of some abstruse algorithm underlying the power exchange and the functioning of the power system. They are also, and more fundamentally, the way in which the market conveys the decentralized information that is distributed among all market participants, and that cannot be centralized in one single brain, as Nobel-prize winner Friederich Hayek would say. That information is translated into two major market signals, which are embodied in negative prices.

In the short run, negative prices show that there is a local condition of oversupply under which electricity is not an economic good which society is willing to pay for, but an economic bad for which consumers should be compensated. Therefore, negative prices create an economic incentive for consumers to shift their consumption patterns so as to capture the opportunity of being paid, instead of paying, to receive energy….

However, in the long run, negative prices talk to energy producers, not to energy consumers. The emergence of negative prices, although strongly conditioned by demand-side constraints, shows that the generating fleet encompasses too much “rigid” capacity (i.e. too much nuclear and coal-fuelled plants) and too little “flexible” capacity (for example CCGTs or turbo-gas power plants); or that grid interconnections are insufficient to properly exploit the spare, flexible capacity available within a market area.

So far as I know, all of the regional power markets in the United States now allow prices to go negative. The connections between wind power policy and negative prices have politicized the issue a bit in the United States. Benedettini and Stagnaro explain in a straightforward manner why, no matter what you think of renewable energy policies, you ought to favor allowing wholesale power market prices to go negative.

Texas wind power, the ERCOT power market, the Public Utility Commission

From SNL Energy, “Texas utility regulators expect to open investigation on wind ‘cost apportionment’“:

Having seen record wind output of more than 10,000 MW in March, ERCOT in the report also noted that Texas has gone well beyond its 10,000-MW capacity goal and far earlier than the 2025 target established in the state’s Public Utility Regulatory Act. …

And while wind energy continues to boom in Texas, the PUCT has been working with ERCOT on ensuring a reliable power grid amid wholesale prices that are not encouraging new fossil-fuel plant construction.

Perhaps, just perhaps, there is a connection between the “wind energy … boom” and the “wholesale prices that are not encouraging new fossil-fuel plant construction”?

The SNL Energy report noted the PUCT was beginning an investigation into cost apportionment issues surrounding wind energy and the recently completed CREZ transmission line additions.