Gas Prices, Price Caps, Reckless Pricing and Telecom Plus

There was a lot of coverage of the impact of rising gas prices in the media this morning, particularly on retail consumers. The wholesale price of natural gas has been shooting up for a number of reasons – up 17% alone on Monday for example.

The Government imposed “price cap” has protected consumers to some extent, but it has meant that many companies that supply consumers have been losing money. There are as many as 55 companies that supply gas to retail consumers but a number have already entered administration and the forecast is that only 10 might survive.

The price cap is only reviewed every six months and that is clearly insufficient to keep up with the rapid change to open market prices. The price cap was introduced to protect consumers from big companies who had many long-standing customers on fixed expensive tariffs. Many were reluctant to switch to other suppliers which is now very easy. Government action might have been laudable to protect the most vulnerable from exploitation but when you start interfering in markets, the outcome is usually perverse.

As a shareholder in Telecom Plus (TEP) I have some interest in this issue. They have repeatedly complained about new entrants to the market who were promoting prices so low that they were bound to lose money. But they were doing this to build a customer base.

This is what TEP said in their last Annual Report in June: “The level of the energy price cap increased by almost £100 at the start of April, a substantial rise that reflects both rising wholesale prices and higher covid-related costs. Since then, wholesale costs have remained at an elevated level, which makes the switching market particularly challenging for all market participants.

Despite this, many independent suppliers are still setting their retail prices at whatever level is required to attract new customers on price comparison sites, irrespective of the impact it will inevitably have on their profitability and cashflow; as a result, we continue to see them reporting significant and unsustainable losses in their latest published accounts. A number of further suppliers have left the market over the last 12 months, with further insolvencies likely in the event that the current Ofgem consultation (designed to prevent suppliers using customer deposits as a substitute for shareholder capital) becomes effective”.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has said that the Government “will not be bailing out failed companies” which is good to hear because it is the companies own fault that they have got into this parlous situation. Gas prices are always volatile and companies that had not hedged the price nor had long-term supply contracts were very likely to come unstuck.

A meeting of supply company leaders with Mr Kwarteng apparently encouraged dropping of the price cap, but he was adamant in retaining it. That is a great pity because this problem would never have arisen if a free market was allowed to operate.

There are other possible ways to protect vulnerable consumers and nobody ever has their gas cut off because their supplier goes bust.  

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson  )

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